Saturday, August 5, 2017

There Is Someone In There

Academic study of dolphin intelligence got off to a rickety start that cost it about a decade. In some sense it has never recovered from its first publicly noted researcher, who cloaked dolphins with a mystical allure they’ve never quite shaken. On the other hand, dolphins have earned a bit of mystique.

In the late 1950s and ’60s, neurophysiologist and brain researcher John C. Lilly presented us with creatures whose gigantic brains made them our superiors. It was an improvement on the idea that whales felt nothing but an inexplicable urge to swallow humans. But Lilly, too, was wrong. John Lilly pronounced that an animal with a brain the size of a sperm whale’s must have a “truly godlike” mind. We’ll leave aside the question of what a “godlike” mind would be and what a whale would do with one. Lilly mistakenly assumed that brain size translated directly to thinking ability. (...)

Scientists rightly scorned John Lilly. His insistence that we could crack dolphin communication — by teaching them English — proved wrong. But his image of dolphins as superior to humans grabbed the imagination of the public, which remains captivated, waiting for a sign that they’re on a higher plane. Perhaps we hope that somehow, someday, someone better will deliver us from our own evils. (...)

Like human babies, infant dolphins babble sequences of whistles that become more organized as they grow. At anywhere between one month and two years, bottlenose, Atlantic spotted, and other dolphins develop their own distinctive individual “signature whistles.” Signature whistles are a name they create for themselves. The sound is distinctive, and the dolphin doesn’t change it, ever. They use it to announce themselves.

Dolphins who hear their own signature whistled by another dolphin call back. They don’t respond to a dolphin who whistles a third dolphin’s signature call. In other words, they call each other by name, and they answer when they hear their own name called. Dolphins call their close friends’ names when they are separated. No other mammal seems to do that (that we know of). Dolphins more than ten miles away can hear each other if water conditions are right. Atlantic spotted dolphins seemingly use names to call together several individuals. When groups meet at sea, they exchange names (but not, so far as is known, phone numbers).

Dolphins remember and recognize one another’s signature whistles for their whole lives. In the experiment that showed this, captive bottlenose dolphins heard recorded signature whistles of dolphins with whom they’d been housed as long as twenty years earlier. They remembered and responded even if they’d known each other only a short while before being separated. The experimenter, Jason Bruck, concluded, “Dolphins have the potential for lifelong memory for each other.” That was the first formal study showing social memory lasting twenty years in a nonhuman.

Dolphins at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, in Mississippi, were trained to help keep their pools clean by trading litter for fish. A dolphin named Kelly realized that she got the same size fish for bringing a big sheet of paper as for a small piece. So, under a weight at the bottom of the pool, she hid any paper that blew in. When a trainer passed, she tore off a piece of paper to trade for a fish. Then she tore off another piece, got another fish. Into the economy of litter, she’d rigged a kind of trash inflation rate that kept the food coming. Similarly, in California, a dolphin named Spock got busted for tearing pieces off a paper bag he’d stuffed behind one of the pool’s underwater pipes, using each shred to buy another fish.

One day, a gull flew into Kelly’s pool, and she grabbed it and waited for the trainers. The humans seemed to really like birds; they traded her several fish for it. This gave Kelly a new insight, and a plan: During her next meal she took the last fish and hid it. When the humans left, she brought the fish up and baited more gulls, to get even more fish. After all, why wait to scrounge an occasional piece of accidental paper when you could become a wealthy commercial bird-fishing dolphin? She taught this to her youngster, who taught other youngsters, and so the dolphins there become professional gull baiters. (...)

Insight, innovation, planning, culture.

In 1979 Diana Reiss started working with a captive bottlenose dolphin named Circe. When Circe did the behavior that Reiss was looking for, Circe got verbal praise and some fish. When she didn’t, she got a “time-out,” in which Reiss stepped back or turned away to indicate that Circe had not performed “correctly.” (Time-outs are now considered outdated; they can frustrate intelligent creatures.) Circe didn’t like tail fins left on her mackerel, and by spitting out the pieces with tails, she essentially trained Reiss to cut them off. One day a few weeks into training, Reiss absentmindedly gave Circe an untrimmed tail section. Circe waved her head from side to side the way we might indicate “No,” spat out the fish, swam to the other side of the pool, positioned herself upright, and just looked at Reiss for a short time. Then she came back. Circe the dolphin had given Reiss the human a time-out.

Astonished but skeptical, Reiss planned an experiment. Six times over several weeks, Reiss purposely fed Circe a tail section with the fin on. Circe gave Reiss four more time-outs. Those were the only times Circe behaved that way. Circe had not only learned “reward” and “no reward; time-out” for her own behavior; she had conceptualized the time-out as a way of communicating the idea “That’s not what I’ve asked for” and used it to correct her human friend.

by Carl Safina, The Sun |  Read more:
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