Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Can dolphins think about the future?

In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert argued that humans are the only animals who think about the future. Gilbert’s not the only one who’s made this argument, and it’s not uncontroversial. Recently, there have been several reports of other mammals demonstrating forward-thinking ability, most recently dolphins:

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.

But she didn’t stop 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.

[To the tune of Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, “Trad: Blue Little Flower,” from the album Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet (I give it 2 stars).]

2 Comments

  1. When I was spending time in the flesh-eating beetle rooms at Brookfield Zoo, there was a cleaned dolphin skull lying out on a table there, and I spent loads of time focusing on that instead of, well, the flesh-eating beetle colony. There’s room for resonance in there, sure, so that their calls are transmitted well underwater, but that brain case is still huge, positively huge, and especially for an animal that is quite similar in scale to humans. That, combined with a rough understanding of how brain size scales upward in non-human primates based on social group size, leaves me utterly unsurprised by these behaviors among dolphins. Actually, the biggest point of novelty is catching gulls to get the jackpot of fish. You’d think the trainers would figure something out before it got so far as to become a game.

    Yes, flesh-eating beetle colony. I said it. I did it. Tell the kids.

  2. Sure, now I see the article in the Guardian points up that whole big-brain thing. And Randy Wells was associated with the Conservation Science department at BZ when I was there. So, of course, were Bob Lacey and Jeanne Altmann. Some seriously terrific people and great thinkers.

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