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Dolphin Cognition Research
Each year hundreds of thousands of dolphins die from driftnet
and purse seine fishing, from being harpooned, from being shot
as crab bait, and from pollution. Although it is already known
that dolphins are large-brained, intelligent, social creatures,
humans continue to slaughter these amazing mammals at an enormous
Don White, President of Earthtrust,
has long seen the need to establish scientific evidence that would
shed light on the issue of dolphin intelligence. Project Delphis
was created in 1985 by Don and by pioneer dolphin advocate Dexter
Cate as an innovative and positive project to investigate and
assess dolphin cognition. It seeks to bring about a clearer understanding
of these friendly mammals, to publish the significant discoveries
in the scientific literature, and to share the information with
the world at large. It is Earthtrust's profound hope that new
perceptions of dolphin intelligence will motivate humans to respect
and protect these friendly people of the sea, and their
natural ocean habitat.
Project Delphis is a conservation effort to save wild dolphins,
as well as an international dolphin behavior and cognition research
project. Its purpose is threefold:
1. to save dolphins in the ocean from the holocaust they currently
experience. By learning all we can about the intelligence of dolphins,
and sharing these findings with the global public in an effort
to raise people's awareness about these animals, it is hoped this
information will further dolphin conservation efforts worldwide.
2. to conduct scientific research on the behavior and cognition
of dolphins and learn more about their minds, and contribute these
findings to the scientific literature;
3. to enrich the environment of these dolphins by offering a vehicle
for their recreation.
Construction of the first Project Delphis underwater viewing
laboratory was completed in July 1990 in Waimanalo, Hawaii. Research
on perception and self-consciousness began immediately. That lab
functioned until late 2002, building up a huge archive of recorded
data and preparing the Delphis program for its next steps.
Our research methodology is unique for scientific work with
dolphins: all work is done purely on the dolphins' own motivation,
with no food reward.
Do Dolphins Perceive Television As Reality, Or Just Fancy
A central goal of Project Delphis is to devise and perfect
flexible interfaces between dolphins and computers for use in
multiple labs and situations worldwide. As a first step, a basic
method of operation in the Delphis program is to interact with
the dolphins and explore their mental abilities and characteristics
using a computer and TV monitor. [83K
GIF Photo of Interior of Lab] The dolphins were shown a videotape
of a trainer feeding them. It was anticipated that if the dolphins
viewed TV as reality, they would swim to their feeding area. These
dolphins first tried to catch the fish they saw being thrown on
the screen, and then swam off to their regular feeding location.
This response indicated a positive reality test: the dolphins
accepted the small TV image as a representation of reality.
Experimental psychologists have measured self-awareness
by observing an animal's reaction to its mirror image: if it uses
the mirror for self-examination, it implies a mental concept of
self. This cognitive ability is only seen in the most advanced
minds. Self-awareness has been demonstrated in the apes and man
by anesthetizing the subject, marking his forehead, and watching
his reaction when he wakes up: when he sees the mark in a mirror,
does he investigate it by touching himself or the mirror? By these
measures, a primate touching itself indicates self-awareness,
whereas touching the mirror, a social response, suggests the subject
is investigating what it perceives as another individual.
We conducted this "mark test" on five bottlenose dolphins
by putting a harmless sunscreen cream on their sides and videotaping
their behavior through a one-way mirror. Indeed they came to the
mirror and twisted and turned as if they were looking at their
mark. To test whether their postures were self-aware rather than
social, we conducted control experiments: (1) we compared
marked to unmarked behavior; (2) we compared mirror behavior to
behavior with a real stranger through an underwater barred gate;
and (3) we let the dolphins watch themselves on TV, both real-time
and playback, and compared the two. The results of the mark tests
and all control experiments strongly suggest self-awareness in
the bottlenose dolphin. Our work has subsequently been repeated
by independent labs with the same result.
If true, this is a profound result: previously, no animals except
a few of the great apes - man and his nearest kin - have shown
this trait. Finding self-awareness in a creature whose evolutionary
history is separated from ours by 60 million years may say something
fundamental about the evolution of intelligence in mammals, and
perhaps the evolution of intelligence in this universe.
Scientific treatment of the self-awareness research appears as
a chapter in the book Self-Awareness in Animals and Humans:
Developmental Perspectives (Eds. Parker, S., Mitchell,
R., and Boccia, M., Cambridge University Press, 1995). This
entire chapter, including figures and photos, is available here.
Extensive treatment has also been carried in the international
science journal Consciousness and Cognition (Volume
4, Number 2, June 1995). Included in this journal is our
paper outlining our research results, followed by commentary
articles from a range of other animal awareness researchers. This
commentary is followed, in turn, by our rebuttal to various comments
presented by the other authors.
Underwater Touch Screen For The Dolphins
Since dolphins cannot interact with computers using traditional
means, we have searched for alternate methods which will allow
them to interact with their Mac computer. We tried to teach the
dolphins to use an acoustic joystick, a way of controlling
a computer cursor with sounds. They did not show sustained interest
in the concept, and in the early 90's the logistics of programming
the computer to recognize their complex sound was problematic.
However during initial tests using a TV display device which responds
to sound with light patterns, the dolphins controlled the display
by squeaking their rostrums against the underwater windows in
their tank. This suggested the design of an underwater touchscreen.
During 1992 and 1993 we worked with Carroll Touch, (now Elo TouchSystems)
in Texas, one of the country's major touchscreen manufacturers.
Their design is dolphin safe: infrared beam production
and sensing electronics are in the lab, and a "reflector
frame" on the dolphin side of the underwater window bends
the beams 90 degrees so they run parallel to the window surface.
Control of the computer through touch allows the dolphins to run
programs that to make choices in various experiments devised to
explore their mental abilities and preferences. Carroll Touch
special page on their web site devoted to the dolphin touch screen.
Dolphin interacting with touchscreen at Project Delphis. The
inset is what the dolphin sees on the screen, which he/she can
manipulate to produce different effects, e.g. music, sounds, visuals,
A physicist would marvel at some of the play behavior observed
in young dolphins at the Project Delphis laboratory. They blow
underwater bubble rings
by injecting air into water vortices, about the thickness
of a straw and 1 to 2 feet in diameter. The rings don't rise to
the surface! The babies play with these underwater toys by moving
them around with their rostrum, or biting them. They even bounce
the rings off the wall, and elongate them with a flick of their
dorsal fins into 15 foot corkscrews.
Communication between a mother dolphin and her two-year old
baby was explored using a two-way acoustic and one-way video link
set up between two tanks. The baby dolphin was able to talk to
its mother on the phone, as well as see her on the TV
monitor. The result was an intense exchange of conversation between
the two with the baby vocalizing and its mother responding. We
are still analyzing recordings of this experiment. While dolphins
do not seem to have a linear language like humans do, it seems
like some high-level communication is taking place.
Elevating People's Knowledge About Dolphins
Earthtrust and Project Delphis' goal is to share our findings
with the public. Early methodological developments and the TV
as reality experiment were shown on Good Morning
America. Early phases of our self-awareness research
were presented on Nature on PBS. Several million
high school students learned about our work through a story done
by the educational program Channel One. In fact, Delphis
has spawned hundreds of documentaries and articles around the
world, presenting dolphins as thinking beings deserving of protection.
As noted above, scientific treatment of the self-awareness research
appears as a chapter in the book Self-Awareness in Animals
and Humans: Developmental Perspectives (Eds. Parker,
S., Mitchell, R., and Boccia, M., Cambridge University Press,
1995). This entire chapter, including figures
and photos, is available here. Extensive treatment has also
been carried in the international science journal Consciousness
and Cognition (Volume 4, Number 2, June 1995). Included
in this journal is our paper outlining our
research results, followed by commentary articles from a range
of other animal awareness researchers. This commentary is followed,
in turn, by our rebuttal to various comments presented by the
Stories on Project Delphis have appeared in California, Oregon,
and Hawaii newspapers, Japan Newsweek and MacWorld
magazine, as well as local Hawaiian news magazine programs. Project
Delphis is also featured in a seven-part German documentary on
dolphins being distributed in five languages, a national prime
time Japanese public television special on animal cognition, and
a British-produced program titled Dolphins: In the Wild
starring Robin Williams, who was filmed clowning
with the dolphins at Delphis in 1994. [Photo
of Robin Williams and the dolphins at Project Delphis, 50K GIF]
In 1992, rock artist Kenny Loggins--long a supporter
of Earthtrust and a member of Earthtrust's International Advisory
Board--visited Project Delphis and sang
for the dolphins. Footage of this unique experiment were later
carried in a Kenny Loggins television special titled This
Island Earth. More information on Kenny's work on behalf
of the environment can be found on Kenny's
In addition to advancing the scientific literature on the subject
of dolphin cognition, the findings that result from the research
at Project Delphis are shared with the global public. The hope
is that new insights into dolphin intelligence will motivate humans
to protect these amazing mammals in their natural ocean habitats
throughout the world.
Project Delphis Is A Program Of Earthtrust
Earthtrust is an international research and educational organization
dedicated to the preservation of wildlife and the natural environment.
Founded in Hawaii in 1976, Earthtrust has developed a wide variety
of innovative campaigns which protect whales, turtles, dolphins,
Asian wildlife, and more. The nonprofit tax-exempt organization
is funded by donations and grants from foundations, corporations
Project Delphis' initial Research Director has been Dr. Ken Marten
[Photo of Ken at Lab Window 33K GIFF],
an experienced animal cognition researcher and former observer
on purse-seine tuna boats. After witnessing first hand the "dolphin
holocaust" aboard the tuna boats, Dr. Marten devoted himself
to advancing scientific understanding--and public awareness--of
the unique dolphin mind.