Ask a person, young or old, to copy something you do and they usually can without a problem. When it comes to other animals, however, the ability to imitate is extremely rare. In fact, only humans and dolphins are known to be truly great at imitation. Now, Dolphin Research Center (DRC) in the Florida Keys explores this ability to an even greater extent. The center’s latest published research demonstrates that a dolphin can imitate another dolphin’s behavior while blindfolded. The study, called Blindfolded Imitation in a Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), appears in the International Journal of Comparative Psychology (Volume 23, No. 4). The journal can be found online at comparativepsychology.org/ejournal.html. A video produced by DRC about the study can also be viewed on DRC’s website at www.dolphins.org.
Previous studies have shown that dolphins can copy each other’s whistles and computer-generated sounds, and that they can also imitate each other’s motor behaviors.
They even show a capacity to copy humans. For the DRC study, a young male dolphin named Tanner was chosen as the test subject. Researchers gave Tanner a familiar hand signal that asked him to imitate another dolphin, but then covered his eyes with soft, latex eyecups. Once Tanner’s vision was completely blocked, the partner dolphin was asked to do a specific behavior. Within seconds, Tanner imitated the other dolphin.
“Even when he was blindfolded, he could still figure out what the other dolphin was doing and then imitate it. Since he couldn’t use his eyesight, he had to have used sound—either the characteristic sound that a behavior makes, much like you or I would recognize the sound of handclapping, or he used echolocation – his underwater sonar,” explains Dolphin Research Center’s Director of Research Dr. Kelly Jaakkola.
During testing, Tanner imitated behaviors well above chance.
“His scores show that he clearly wasn’t guessing,” says Dr. Jaakkola. “Even when he got an answer wrong, he was usually pretty close.”
Nineteen motor behaviors and eight vocal behaviors that Tanner already knew were tested. Bobbing up and down, spinning, waving, shark imitation, giggling, and speed runs were just some of the tests.
Such flexibility in using multiple perceptual routes to imitate has never before been documented in a nonhuman animal. “Tanner showed how flexible he could be in his thinking. When faced with this challenge, he problem-solved and found a way to accomplish the task.”
Dolphin Research Center’s research continues to add to the world’s knowledge database on dolphins with a variety of studies. Most recently, DRC’s project on What do dolphins understand about hidden objects? was published by Animal Cognition in 2009. In 2005, their study on Understanding of the Concept of Numerically “Less” in Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), published in the American Psychology Association’s Journal of Comparative Psychology (Vol. 119, No. 3), demonstrated for the first time that dolphins can understand numerical concepts.
In addition to its most recent studies, DRC has been involved in numerous other observational, cognitive, and medical research projects and papers, both on its own and in cooperation with other well-known scientists and institutions. These include studies on immunology, DNA fingerprinting, metacognition, language research, signature whistles, calf independence and others.
Founded in 1984, Dolphin Research Center is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting peaceful coexistence, cooperation and communication between marine mammals and humans and the environment through research and education. Home to a family of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions, the facility is located on the Overseas Highway at mile marker 59, Grassy Key, Florida. Internationally known for its research and education programs, Dolphin Research Center is an accredited member of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums. For more information, call 305-289-1121 or visit www.dolphins.org.