Dolphin see, dolphin do?

23 January 2012

Well, not exactly. Scientists at the Dolphin Research Centre in the Florida Keys have found that blindfolded dolphins can sense and imitate the actions of other dolphins nearby.

Could this be extrasensory perception (ESP)?

During the study, a male bottlenose dolphin, named Tanner, was blindfolded with latex suction cup goggles while a dolphin companion, named Kibby, was instructed to say “hello” by splashing and waving her pectoral fins. Almost immediately after Kibby waved her fins, Tanner also began waving his fins to mimic the greeting! Several other tests, 19 to be exact, showed the same result.

Did you know? The largest dolphin is the Orca, also known as the “Killer Whale.”

Dolphins are known to be master imitators, but exactly how they can mimic each other's actions without using sight, like Tanner did, is unknown. Dr. Kelly Jaakkola, lead scientist of the study, has a couple of theories. One theory is that Tanner was using echolocation or biosonar. To echolocate, dolphins send out clicking sounds into the environment around them. Those clicks bounce off different objects in the environment and travel back to the animal as echoes. By interpreting these echoes, dolphins can figure out what an object is, and how far away it is. This can be mighty handy while hunting or traveling!

Did you know? Using echolocation, a dolphin can find a 2.5 centimetre object 72 meters away — that’s like standing at one end of a hockey rink and noticing a quarter at the other end!

Another hypothesis is that Tanner recognized the splashing sound made by Kibby’s waving and knew what Kibby was up to. This could be a very likely explanation, since Tanner was already familiar with the tasks that Kibby was asked to do.

Whatever the explanation, it is pretty cool that dolphins have this ability to mimic others while blindfolded.

Did you know? A bottlenose dolphin’s brain weighs 1,500-1600 grams — that’s over 25 per cent heavier than the average human brain!

Learn More!

Visit the Dolphin Research Centre's website

More about Echolocation

More fun Dolphin facts

Article first published February 15, 2011.

Photo credit:C. Spencer van Gulick


Susan is based in WWF-Canada’s St. John’s, NL office. As a Fisheries Conservation Advisor with WWF since 2007, she now manages WWF’s Smart Fishing Initiative work in NL and works with local and international management authorities and the seafood industry to develop, promote and assist with effective implementation of fisheries improvement measures, specifically those related to the recovery of Atlantic cod stocks in the NL region and on the Grand Banks. Before joining WWF, Susan was the Chief Research Technician for the Fisheries Conservation Chair of Memorial University in St. John's and acted as an advisor for WWF-Canada. Susan received her Bachelor of Science degree in marine biology and Masters of Science in fisheries science at Memorial University. Susan's previous work and research publications include fisheries acoustics, reproduction and stock assessment studies of North Atlantic cod.

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