Human Intelligence

How are dolphins able to learn from each other?
Answered by Cristen Conger and Animal Planet
  • Cristen Conger

    Cristen Conger

  • Animal Planet

    Animal Planet

  1. Cristen Conger Blogger, Stuff Mom Never Told You
    Think about how you learned to whistle. Lauren Bacall famously told Humphrey Bogart that all you have to do is put your lips together and blow, but whistling requires a little more nuance than that. For that reason, you may have watched someone with songbird lips whistle a tune or two and mimicked their mouth movements. It likely took some repetition to finally get out those notes, but by imitating the steps over and over again, you finally mastered a new trick. Humans aren’t the only mammals that copycat in order to learn, either. Researchers suspect that dolphins ape each other to acquire new skills.

    Highly social mammals, dolphins communicate with a variety of clicks, whistles and pulsing emissions to identify their location, convey emotional states and converse with nearby dolphins. In 2002, a study in the journal Nature found that the marine mammals will imitate artificial dolphin whistles made by their trainers. Young dolphins are especially prone to picking up their novel attention-getting vocalizations, which fellow dolphins will pick up on, too. Dolphin calves may also mimic motor movements, such as fin flaps. Why all this underwater impersonation? The same reason you wanted to figure out how to tie your shoes; it’s an innate pursuit of skill acquisition, whether it’s as simple as a whistle or as complex as composing a whole symphony.
    dolphin, dolphins, zoo
    (PEDRO ARMESTRE/AFP/Getty Images)

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  2. Bottlenose dolphins often teach each other new tricks. For example, trainers at an aquatic park that hosted a recuperating injured bottlenose dolphin taught her how to tail walk during her stay. After she was released, she taught the trick to other wild dolphins in the area.

    In another case, wild dolphins got in the habit of picking up sea sponges and swimming around with them. Sounds silly, until you consider that it actually demonstrated their adaptive problem-solving abilities. By swimming with the sea sponges on their snouts, the dolphins were armored against the prick of the spiny fish that also swam the waters.

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