Project Delphis was created in 1985 by Don White and by pioneer dolphin advocate Dexter Cate as an innovative and positive project to investigate and assess dolphin cognition. The ongoing project 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. ET’s Hawaii lab closed in 2003, but analysis of its decade-plus of video data continues. 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 advanced minds of dolphins, and sharing these findings with the global public in an effort to raise people’s awareness about these animals, we intend to 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 always enrich the environment of any dolphins involved by offering toys for their recreation, and giving them the choice to participate or not.
Construction of the first Project Delphis underwater viewing laboratory was completed in July 1990 in Waimanalo, Hawaii. Research on perception and self-awareness began immediately. In the following 13 years the lab built up a huge archive of recorded data, and tried many things never replicated. That lab is closed, but the project continues as an investigation into the dolphin mind.
Research At Project Delphis
Our research methodology has been 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 Lights?
A central goal of Project Delphis has been to devise and perfect flexible interfaces between dolphins and computers for use in multiple labs and situations worldwide.
Historically, the first phase of the Delphis program was 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] In one example, 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, that implies a mental concept of self. This cognitive ability is only seen in the most advanced minds. Self-awareness has been demonstrated in the great apes (including 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 its mark while doing mirror examination indicates self-awareness, whereas touching the mirror, a social response, suggests the subject is investigating what it perceives as another individual.
Early in the lab’s history 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 and their marks 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 and were accepted by the majority of authorities as valid. Our work has subsequently been repeated by independent labs with the same result.
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 diverged from ours more than 60 million years ago may say something fundamental about the evolution of intelligence in mammals, and perhaps the evolution of intelligence in this universe generally.
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 developed additional methods which to allow them to interact with their computers. We initially used an acoustic joystick, a way of controlling a computer cursor with sounds, using a custom board build by John McAfee (later of virus-protection fame). 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, to make our first dolphin touch-screen. The design of the ET systems is inherently 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 has a 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, etc.
Underwater Bubble Sculpture
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN READERS: Click here for additional photos of dolphin bubble ring sculpture. Email or phone EarthTrust to get involved or make a donation to the next-generation research. Please also see Dr. Ken Marten’s testimony to Congress on the “Dolphin Death Bill” which altered the definition of ‘dolphin safe’ tuna in the USA.
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.
[Photo of dolphin with vertical-type ring]
Photos of dolphins with horizontal-type bubble rings:
[“Lord of the Rings, Photo 1” 66K GIF]
[“Lord of the Rings, Photo 2” 50K GIF]
We wrote up our observations and analyses of this phenomenon in a scientific paper, published in the August 1996 edition of Scientific American. You can also read more here in an article titled Mystery of the Silver Rings by EarthTrust President and Project Delphis founder Don White.
How Do Dolphins Communicate With Each Other?
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 other authors.
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 WWW page.
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 and individuals.
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.
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