Last week, we produced a podcast titled ‘the dim dolphin controversy’. You may recall from this episode that many scientists referred to the work of Dr. Louis Herman’s research lab when citing examples of intelligent dolphin behavior. In this week’s episode, we will learn what Dr. Herman’s research has taught us about dolphin behavior and why these studies are considered by many to be proof positive that dolphins are smarter than the average goldfish. In fact, even smarter than the above-average goldfish.
Last week, we produced a podcast titled ‘the dim dolphin controversy‘. You may recall from this episode that many scientists referred to the work of Dr. Louis Herman’s research lab when citing examples of intelligent dolphin behavior. In this week’s episode, we will learn what Dr. Herman’s research has taught us about dolphin behavior and why these studies are considered by many to be proof positive that dolphins are smarter than the average goldfish. In fact, even smarter than the above-average goldfish.
Dr. Herman has been researching the behavioral abilities of dolphin at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Honolulu Hawaii since the early 1970’s. This research lab is famous for their studies of language comprehension by dolphins – in these studies, captive dolphins were taught how to use an artificial language system meant to test their ability to understand and use symbols to communicate. The results of these studies have been considered by many to be nothing short of incredible. But, these language studies are only the tip of the iceberg: many other groundbreaking discoveries have been produced from Dr. Herman’s lab. In this podcast, we will look into some of these important studies in more detail. I have organized the top set of results into a list that I call:
Dr. Herman’s Top 5 Most Remarkable Dolphin Discoveries
Watch Herman’s Dolphin Prodigies in Action
At number 5, we have ‘behavioral mimicry’
Dr. Herman’s dolphins are able to imitate the movements of their trainers. When requested by a trainer to copy their movements, a dolphin will imitate a whole variety of movements performed by the trainer including turning a pirouette, or lifting arms and legs. Obviously, dolphins don’t have arms or legs, so they used their pectoral fins or flukes as analogous body parts. Dolphins are also fantastic vocal mimics – able to accurately copy a large variety of sounds. Other than humans, there do not appear to be any animals, as yet studied, that are capable of imitating body movements in this way.
Coming in at number 4, we have ‘dolphins on TV’
Most animals have a very difficult time interpreting what they see on TV as analogous to what they perceive in the real world. Even chimpanzees don’t quite understand what is happening when they are first exposed to television images. After some training, however, they will eventually learn to perceive television images in a way similar to human beings. In contrast, dolphins seem to ‘get’ TV from their first exposure. Dr. Herman placed a TV in the underwater viewing window of the dolphins’ tank which displayed a researcher giving gestural commands to the dolphin. That is, the researcher was on TV and the dolphins were watching the TV. The dolphin understood these commands right away. This ability is interesting if you consider that the image on the television that the dolphin saw was a tiny 2-D black and white representation of a human being – quite different from the real thing. The fact that a dolphin could figure out what this image was all about reveals that they have a rather complex visual recognition system and an ability to interpret distorted visual stimuli as representing something from the real world. (Watch Dr. Ken Marten describe his experiments with dolphins and TV )
Third in our list is ‘awareness of one’s own body parts’
Researchers at Herman’s lab assigned gestural symbols to different parts of the dolphin’s body. The trainers would then use these gestures to ask a dolphin to do different things with their various body parts. For example, touch the Frisbee with your dorsal fin. This task didn’t cause the dolphins much trouble at all, likely revealing that they are aware of their own body to some extent.
Coming in at number 2, ‘understanding pointing gestures’
Researchers gave dolphins commands to perform on objects, but instead of naming the objects, the researchers simply pointed to the objects. Dolphins were able to understand the reference of the human pointing gesture in a variety of circumstances, and what’s more, the dolphins could do it without being expressly trained to understand pointing. This ability is rare in the animal kingdom – not even chimpanzees are able to understand pointing gesturess this easily. What’s even stranger; try thinking about why it is a dolphin understands a pointing gesture when dolphins don’t even have arms! But, that’s a subject for future podcasts…
And, the most astonishing discovery of all making the top of our list: ‘artificial language comprehension’
In an attempt to find out what animals are capable of understanding when it comes to human language, many researchers throughout the years have developed artificial language systems and tried to teach them to animals. Gorillas, chimps and bonobos (aka the pygmy chimp) have all had some success manipulating artificial language systems. Dr. Herman demonstrated that dolphins were also capable of something similar. Dolphins were taught gestures that represented words and actions with which they were able to carry out instructions. What’s really interesting about this study was that word order was used to communicate different kinds of actions. For example, the gestural sequence Surfboard Person Fetch means, “take the person to the surfboard,” whereas the sequence Person Surfboard Fetch means the opposite, -“take the surfboard to the person.” – something that the dolphins had no trouble with.
So, there you have it: Dr. Herman’s Top 5 Most Remarkable Dolphin Discoveries. Many scientists feel that these examples of clever behavior prove that dolphins are indeed intelligent animals, or at the very least in scientific terms: “highly cognitive”.
If you would like to learn more about these five studies by Dr. Herman and his team of associates, then please visit the website of The Dolphin Institute: at www.dolphin-institute.org.