What a Smart Dolphin Can Learn

Delayed Gratification
A smart dolphin can understand that to get something great later, we may have to sacrifice something good right now. In one experiment, a trainer rewarded dolphins who collected litter in their tank and brought the litter to a trainer. Each piece of litter earned the dolphin a piece of fish. One might expect a smart dolphin to catch on to this reward scenario completely enough to start collecting litter for the sole purpose of trading it in, or even to understand that it may be a good idea to try to collect more litter than the other dolphins in the tank. However, a smart dolphin will go one step further. One of the animals in the study figured out that if she left a bit of the fish uneven, hid it away for a while, and then brought it to the trainer, the trainer would see it as litter and give her a whole new fish. This smart dolphin taught herself to consistently reserve a bite of each fish she was given, making an investment that would later pay off in a whole new fish. If people could understand this idea so clearly, we would all have ample retirement savings.

A smart dolphin may be able, in some sense, to read. Although no smart dolphin is ready to sit down with the complete works of Dostoyevsky, studies have shown that dolphins are entirely capable of understanding the correlation between printed symbols and objects. When presented with a series of pictures, a smart dolphin will eventually learn to use them to communicate with trainers. A smart dolphin will, for example, be able to play this game: when a trainer points to his or her knee, a smart dolphin will point to a printed symbol that the trainer has taught the dolphin means “knee.” The fact that a smart dolphin understands how a two-dimensional picture relates to a live action means that one day, a smart dolphin may be able to absorb enough visual vocabulary to read and write, albeit through pictures.

Ganging Up
One of the most impressive and smart dolphin behaviors takes the concept of safety in numbers to an extreme. Scientists have discovered roving pods of dolphin gangs, all male groups of dolphins who stick together and fight rivals side by side. A scientist tracked a single pod for three years, and reported that in all that time, the gang or “army” of dolphins never lost a fight. Apparently, a smart dolphin is smart enough to know that his fighting power increases exponentially when he teams up with another smart dolphin, or a few dozen.

One of the most pressing topics in contemporary dolphin research has to do with the possibility that a smart dolphin could learn to communicate with a human by learning our language. Dolphins already use a variety of sounds amongst themselves, though we are not yet able to identify the uses and meanings of their vocalizations. Researcher Louis Herman has published articles that describe the ability of a smart dolphin to mimic sounds, and dolphins have proven their ability to learn simple melodies taught by humans. Given what we understand about dolphin cognition and communication, it seems completely possible that a smart dolphin is capable of learning to identify and understand our sound patterns the same way that it learns to understand other dolphins.

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