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Dolphin Watch
Dolphins ‘do as I do’ more than you think
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“Did ya catch that?” Slightwin seems to ask as she glances up after tossing a tiny fish. Given the context, her behavior was more greeting than eating.
The fog was almost absolute, out in a boat as we were in the aquatic study area that we monitor for bottlenose dolphins. Capt. John Heidemann and I could only see a small dim circle of the world immediately around us, the edges of which faded into a hushed formless white.

We had been tricked into venturing out. The fog at our launching point had faded. We were past the point of no return when gossamer patches gave way to thick clouds that, tired of hanging, had descended to stretch out on the seas.

It was the perfect metaphor for life. Shadowy shorelines behind us were like remembering last month. I thought of Daniel Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness. In it, he makes a remarkable case that people are so bad at predicting their future because we are so bad at remembering our past. We gloss over past pains and exaggerate past pleasures. This helps us face the future with, according to Gilbert, unreasonable optimism.

For the moment, we were indeed proceeding with unreasonable optimism. Bits of cloud settled into my hair as I peered ahead pointlessly into that figureless fog.

Our unreasonable optimism was not unrewarded. A trio of dolphins materialized out of the mist, local bulls BB and DD2 with little local lady Slightwin.

They approached and greeted us, each uniquely. BB rolled and grabbed a handy horsetail. Instead of zinging his mangrove seed sideways as usual, he merely nudged it symbolically. DD2 lifted his mighty tailstock high above the water like he was going to slam it down. Instead he lowered it in a controlled arc like an Olympic skater and tapped the water lightly. Slightwin went for the gold. First she rolled and swam under BB, her white belly gleaming until it disappeared under him. Then, still upside-down, she zoomed after a tiny fish. Like BB’s symbolic nudge, she just snapped at it. Then she surfaced to see if we were watching.

Surrounded by fog, the scene was primeval. The human sense of vision is great until limited, as it is by fog. The dolphin sense of sound, of piercing murky or clear seas – it matters not – seemed far more useful. We were seriously limited by the same fog that did not matter at all to BB, DD2, or Slightwin.

That difference reinforced my appreciation that there is any communication or understanding between us and them at all. That each dolphin had greeted our boat in its own way was another metaphor, this time for their famous flexibility. Dolphins are physically flexible to be sure; only sea lions are suppler. But my metaphor was about their great mental flexibility, doubly impressive in the face of pressures that call for the uniformity of a fish school.

Dolphins are capable of wonderful individuality of expression, like today’s unique greetings, but also the uniformity of fish schools. Bottlenose dolphins are the only animals that imitate behaviors AND sounds.

This may seem unremarkable because imitation is basic human behavior. But other animals do not think like us. We should applaud and explore any similarities we find. Moreover, plenty of animals that are acting alike are acting independently. Dolphins appear to be the only animals that get the general idea of imitation.

In captivity, trainers capitalize on this mental ability to train dolphins to do showy synchronous behaviors, like four dolphins leaping together at the same time. They teach one dolphin to do the behavior first. Then they systematically reward other dolphins for showing any signs of imitating the trained behavior. In these situations, dolphins often imitate spontaneously.

Spontaneous imitation in captivity suggests that dolphins are naturally good at imitation because it benefits them in nature. To people familiar with dolphin behavior at sea, it is not surprising to hear that dolphins are master imitators. When danger threatens, groups benefit by imitating each other until they blend like a school of fish. Both moms and babies benefit when mom camouflages her newborn by matching its stride.

The important distinction between acting alike unintentionally and replicating someone else’s behavior intentionally materializes out of dolphins’ more beguiling imitations. Wild dolphins who ended up in captivity may have imitated things they had seen at sea, an example being a contorted posture that seems to imitate a shark. How charming when captive dolphins are easily persuaded to imitate human behavior, such as a trainer twirling on the edge of the pool. A matchless example of imitating sounds at sea is when one bottlenose dolphin gives its signature whistle and another dolphin answers with that whistle, raising questions about dolphins having names and calling each other by name.

Importantly, the dolphin ability to imitate has passed strict experimental muster. Because imitation has significant implications about mental abilities, scientific validation gives way to foggier questions such as whether dolphins have or are capable of culture. Culture in humans is a shared world view passed down the generations that differentiates discrete groups. It is most obvious at odd times, such as when you wordlessly understand that the person behind you at the grocery store check-out is a tourist. Does imitation among John’s Pass dolphins expand to anything cultural at sea – wordlessly differentiating local from transient dolphins the way you seamlessly identify tourists?

Dr. Weaver studies wild dolphins under federal permit 16299, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an email at or visit her website www.g­oodna­tured­stati­stics­.com. NOAA advises anyone who sees a stranded dolphin in the Gulf of Mexico to call 877-942-5343 or 877-433-8299.
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