A Researcher Asks: Are Dolphins Self-Aware?

Like chimpanzees, dolphins are large-brained and highly social animals, but can they recognize themselves in a mirror? Psychologist and dolphin researcher Diana Reiss discusses her work with dolphin communication and cognition.

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IRA FLATOW, host: Moving from our brains, talking cerebrally now about the brains of dolphins. Humans and dolphins are separated by 95 million years of evolution, and in that time these mammals' hands and feet turned into fins. They developed more sophisticated features.

Did you know they have sonar, like bats? They can play complex games of Capture the Flag. We call it a piece of seaweed. And if you ever watch "Flipper," you know that they can make a wide array of clicks and whistles. But can that be language?

My next guest has been looking at these big-brained mammals much like others have looked at chimps and gorillas and studying them, figuring out what they can do. And she's written a new book. Diana Reiss is author of the new book "The Dolphin in the Mirror," and she's professor in the psychology department of Hunter College. She's also the biopsychology and behavioral neuroscience program at the graduate center at City University in New York. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DIANA REISS: Hi, Ira, I'm thrilled to be here.

FLATOW: Tell us: How smart are these dolphins? What have they shown you over the years?

REISS: Well, they're really smart, and of course the challenge is always to try to understand intelligence of another species, particularly when they're so different, like a dolphin is. What is the nature of their intelligence? That's what I'm trying to find out.

FLATOW: And "The Dolphin in the Mirror," you named it that because of your research with them?

REISS: Correct. We - several years ago, my colleague and I put a mirror in front of a dolphin and wanted to know what would they do with it. What would they - would they know it's themselves? And again, this is a really - this is a rare cognitive ability in other animals. And they actually showed that, like us, they can recognize themselves in mirrors.

FLATOW: And you did research at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Is that where you studied your dolphins?

REISS: No, actually, my first lab was in California at a place called Marine World, when I...

FLATOW: Ah, Marine World.

REISS: Marine World, and what else? And then I was research director, director of marine mammal research at the New York Aquarium, the Osborn Labs for Marine Studies. And now I'm doing - I'm directing a program of dolphin research at the National Aquarium.

FLATOW: You know, we always say that people are different than other animals because they're self-aware, right?

REISS: Right.

FLATOW: Are dolphins self-aware?

REISS: Well, you know, it's interesting because when you think about self-awareness, most animals would have to have some form of awareness or they'd be bumping into each other and the walls and their environment. So we're talking about a particular kind of self-awareness, the sense of you can recognize that you are in that mirror, that that's an external representation of yourself. That's pretty sophisticated when you think about it. And most animals don't do it.

Most animals if they do pay attention to a mirror, which many don't, like dogs and cats generally don't, if they do, they think it's another of their own kind, and they'll show social behavior. With the dolphins, not only are they aware that it's themselves, and they show it to us behaviorally.

FLATOW: How? What do they do that they know that...

REISS: Yeah. So there are three stages. Should I break it down more simply?

FLATOW: Yeah.

REISS: The three stages are if they've never seen a mirror before, they try to look around it, look over it, figure out what this thing is, who's behind it, then they - if they've never seen a mirror, they start showing social behavior. So for dolphins, they might echolocate or whistle at it or squawk at it. I'm going to hold myself back from doing imitations, but they...

FLATOW: Feel free.

REISS: Oh, I will...

FLATOW: It's radio.

REISS: ...soon, soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REISS: But they'll do - and they'll show typical social behaviors. And for scientists who study them, we have to know what those social behaviors look like. So the second stage is what we call contingency testing. Now, for any of you out there listening to the station who know the old - the Harpo Marx, Lucille Ball or Groucho skit in front of the mirror. This is what...

FLATOW: The mirror image of each other.

REISS: This is what you see. I mean, it's pretty much highly repetitive behaviors, really unusual behaviors in front of a mirror. Now, it may look odd and funny to us, but in reality, this is where the light bulb goes on. This is where the animal figures out that something that it's doing, that the behaviors it's doing are related to the behaviors they're seeing in the mirror. And they start realizing there's this one-to-one correspondence. And that's a really important stage.

So you - when you see this stage, you generally will see animals go on to use the mirror to look at themselves, and that's that third stage we call self-directed behavior. And this is so interesting because not only have my colleagues and I studied dolphins and shown dolphins can show mirror self-recognition, but we've done this with elephants. We did this with elephants at the Bronx Zoo.

FLATOW: OK.

REISS: Frans de Waal, who I know has been here, and his graduate student Josh Plotnik and I collaborated, so we showed this in Asian elephants as well. What's amazing is that the elephants, dolphins, chimps and humans show the same kinds of behaviors often at the mirror.

FLATOW: Wow.

REISS: Wow. Yeah.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. I'm Ira Flatow, and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. They don't start straightening their hair out, do they?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REISS: No. But I'll tell you something...

FLATOW: What do they do? Go ahead.

REISS: Oh, we're on?

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

REISS: Sorry. So what they do is they'll look inside their mouths, and they'll open their mouths really wide. Dolphins will often wiggle their tongues. And it's clear they're opening and holding and looking inside their mouths. They all put their eyes up against the mirror and look at their eyes very closely. So they may look at one eye and then turn and look at the other eye. They look at their genitals often. We didn't see this in elephants, but we certainly see this in humans, chimps and dolphins.

And again, they watch themselves doing different things in front of the mirror. When we look at children and they're playing in front of the mirror, you watch yourself doing that fancy new dance step, dolphins do all sorts of things like blowing varieties of bubbles, doing different kinds of play at the mirror.

FLATOW: Wow. Talking with Diana Reiss, author of the new book "The Dolphin in the Mirror." You know, people are always saying, well, these are not really intelligent animals like we are. They're just trained to do things. You don't agree with that.

REISS: Not at all. In fact, you know, you can train pigeons to do all sorts of complex things. Rats can be trained to do all sorts of complex things, and even insects and goldfish. It's not - it's what they do in their own behavior. These are highly complex mammals with complex social lives, complex cognitive lives. And we have - we know enough now to know that they are highly intelligent. And it's not just what you're seeing in the training. That's the minimal stuff.

FLATOW: Why do they need such big brains like that?

REISS: That's a really interesting question. And one of the ideas is that their brains are getting bigger and - as they're dealing with more complexity. I mean, imagine being a mammal out in the ocean without a cell phone, for example. They have these highly complex social networks. They have to remember who's there, who they interacted with, who they collaborated with in the past. And also, you know, they coordinate, collaborate with each other, and they have to - again, they have to have memory for what worked, who they interacted with. And then, there are challenges in the environment, you know? And they have to survive.

FLATOW: They come from the same family as whales, right?

REISS: Right.

FLATOW: Why aren't whales as smart?

REISS: Well, we don't know that whales aren't as smart. We just haven't had the opportunity to study them. In general, we have had dolphins in aquaria for many, many years, and that's afforded us the opportunity to understand the minds of these amazing animals. With whales, there really haven't been many cognitive studies done - with killer whales, with orcas. I don't know why that is. But most other whales, you - it's very hard to do cognitive work in the wild.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. You know, you see them in the wild acting as teams.

REISS: Right.

FLATOW: It's really amazing.

REISS: It is. And it's, you know, this idea of cooperation care-giving, you see that - you see it in whales. You see it in dolphins. And it makes you think, you know, do they really know what they're doing when they save a human? It's a whole other area.

FLATOW: Do they actually save humans? Yeah?

REISS: Oh, there has been - I talk about this in the book. I talk about the myths of dolphins saving humans, and then there are historical accounts, records, historical records of dolphins saving humans and statues being built, you know, in honoring dolphins. And the question is, well, did they know what they were doing? Are these just myths? Are they stories? But we know now. We have new accounts, contemporary accounts of dolphins doing the same.

FLATOW: You were into Greek mythology as a kid.

REISS: Yeah.

FLATOW: Is that what got you thinking about dolphins?

REISS: Not at all.

FLATOW: No?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REISS: No. That would be very...

FLATOW: There was a movie about dolphin - a Greek - I can't remember what it is at the moment but...

REISS: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...a boy and his dolphin or something.

REISS: Right. No. I was always interested in Greek mythology, but I was never interested in dolphins. I really didn't - I wasn't a "Flipper" fan. I liked "Lassie" better than I liked "Flipper." It wasn't until I got older. My background was actually in theater. So I was a stage designer. And I always had a science background and an interest in science, and I left the theater to go into science to study animal communication. And it was one day when I was reading a story in The New York Times about whaling that I - it struck me: we hardly know anything about these magnificent animals. We need to learn more, so.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to learn a little bit more. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Talking with Diana Reiss. She's the author of the new book "The Dolphin in the Mirror." She runs a dolphin research program at the National Aquarium. And we'll take your calls. 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Dr. Diana Reiss, author of the new book "The Dolphin in the Mirror." She's professor in the psychology department at Hunter College here in New York. Let's see if we can get a phone call in before we have to go. Sam in Des Moines. Hi, Sam.

SAM: Hey, Ira. Thanks for taking my call. Your prefaced this show by asking whether or not dolphins have language, and I'm actually an English professor. And one of the essays that I begin my composition semester with is by Susanne Langer, a philosopher who says that what makes us human, separates us from all other animals, is the fact that we have symbolic language, whereas all other animals understand signs. They have signific language. They can react to signs, but we're the only animal that has a concept - that conceives, that it has a concept of the past and the future, because we have language. We have symbolic thought.

And I was just wondering if, Dr. Reiss, if that's something that your research is looking at in terms of whether it's chimps or dolphins or other language - or other animals, that they have a sense of history, a sense of symbolism.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for the call.

REISS: They have memory in the sense of, you know, they have memory. I don't know - we don't know very much about the sense of history other than that. But in terms of symbolic behavior, it's something I'm very involved in, and I've been very interested in decoding dolphins' own forms of communication. We haven't found the Rosetta Stone to crack that code yet, although they do use complex sounds and behaviors in communication. Years ago, I did a study giving dolphins an underwater keyboard to ask the question, how would they use this - a symbolic board?

They had visual forms on the keyboard. If they hit a key, they would hear a particular whistle that was different from their own and get an object. So it was a simple touch key, hear whistle, get object. What we found was the dolphins showed us that they - on their own, they learned associations between the symbols, the sounds, the objects. It may have been symbolic, and they started using it amongst themselves. But we couldn't confirm that. So we don't really know, and that's exactly what I'm looking at now. We're doing a more a high-tech keyboard - touchscreen. We're trying to get funding for that right now.

FLATOW: All right. Fascinating book, it's called "The Dolphin in the Mirror" by Dr. Diana Reiss, professor in psychology at the department of Hunter College. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

REISS: Thank you so much for having me. Thanks.

FLATOW: Good luck to you.

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