Okay, it’s not about dogs, or shelters, or rescue.
But it’s good.
At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi, Kelly the dolphin has built up quite a reputation. All the dolphins at the institute are trained to hold onto any litter that falls into their pools until they see a trainer, when they can trade the litter for fish. In this way, the dolphins help to keep their pools clean.
Kelly has taken this task one step further. When people drop paper into the water she hides it under a rock at the bottom of the pool. The next time a trainer passes, she goes down to the rock and tears off a piece of paper to give to the trainer. After a fish reward, she goes back down, tears off another piece of paper, gets another fish, and so on. This behaviour is interesting because it shows that Kelly has a sense of the future and delays gratification. She has realised that a big piece of paper gets the same reward as a small piece and so delivers only small pieces to keep the extra food coming. She has, in effect, trained the humans.
Her cunning has not stopped there. One day, when a gull flew into her pool, she grabbed it, waited for the trainers and then gave it to them. It was a large bird and so the trainers gave her lots of fish. This seemed to give Kelly a new idea. The next time she was fed, instead of eating the last fish, she took it to the bottom of the pool and hid it under the rock where she had been hiding the paper. When no trainers were present, she brought the fish to the surface and used it to lure the gulls, which she would catch to get even more fish. After mastering this lucrative strategy, she taught her calf, who taught other calves, and so gull-baiting has become a hot game among the dolphins.
They use tools, tell jokes, recognize themselves in mirrors, are interested in watching TV, have unique names which they use to identify each other, do impersonations, improvise, follow instructions, and in addition to all these traits we associate with intelligence, comprehension, and stand-up comedy, they also lose their temper more slowly than we do:
A dolphin’s ability to invent novel behaviours was put to the test in a famous experiment by the renowned dolphin expert Karen Pryor. Two rough-toothed dolphins were rewarded whenever they came up with a new behaviour. It took just a few trials for both dolphins to realise what was required. A similar trial was set up with humans. The humans took about as long to realise what they were being trained to do as did the dolphins. For both the dolphins and the humans, there was a period of frustration (even anger, in the humans) before they “caught on”. Once they figured it out, the humans expressed great relief, whereas the dolphins raced around the tank excitedly, displaying more and more novel behaviours.
Dolphins are quick learners. Calves stay with their mothers for several years, allowing the time and opportunity for extensive learning to take place, particularly through imitation. At a dolphinarium, a person standing by the pool’s window noticed that a dolphin calf was watching him. When he released a puff of smoke from his cigarette, the dolphin immediately swam off to her mother, returned and released a mouthful of milk, causing a similar effect to the cigarette smoke. Another dolphin mimicked the scraping of the pool’s observation window by a diver, even copying the sound of the air-demand valve of the scuba gear while releasing a stream of bubbles from his blowhole.
They also use complex problem-solving skills and even more complex hunting strategy, and while we haven’t grasped their communication, they can quickly learn a whole lot of ours:
…we’ve barely begun to record all their sounds and body signals let alone try to decipher them. At Kewalo Basin Marine Laboratory in Hawaii, Lou Herman and his team set about testing a dolphin’s ability to comprehend our language. They developed a sign language to communicate with the dolphins, and the results were remarkable. Not only do the dolphins understand the meaning of individual words, they also understand the significance of word order in a sentence. (One of their star dolphins, Akeakamai, …can understand more than 2,000 sentences.) Particularly impressive is the dolphins’ relaxed attitude when new sentences are introduced. For example, the dolphins generally responded correctly to “touch the frisbee with your tail and then jump over it”. This has the characteristics of true understanding, not rigid training.
As is true of dogs: even though it’s fun (and seems pretty accurate) to point out that Kelly and her compadres are clearly smarter than a lot of people I know, it’s not truly a matter of comparison.
They are a different species, with a unique wit obviously worthy of our respect.
And now that I’ve said that, I can say this:
These dolphins sure leave many of our politicians and television news personalities in the dust.
You can read the whole Guardian article here.