Switching strategies: a dolphin’s use of passive and active acoustics to imitate motor actions


Scientists have long debated the extent to which animals can imitate. Observations of bottlenose dolphins suggest a sophisticated capacity for social imitation, but little is known about the nature of these abilities. Here, we explore the behavioral mechanisms underlying a dolphin’s ability to copy motor actions while blindfolded (i.e., wearing eyecups). When a dolphin was asked to imitate a dolphin, a human, and then another dolphin blindfolded, his accuracy remained relatively consistent across models. However, his blindfolded echolocation dramatically increased when copying a human as compared to other dolphins, suggesting he actively switched between strategies: recognizing behaviors via characteristic sounds when possible, but via echolocation for the more novel sounding behaviors of the human. Such flexibility in changing perceptual routes demonstrates that the dolphin’s imitation was not automatically elicited, but rather results from an intentional, problem-solving approach to imitation.

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We wish to thank Jodi Skjegstad and several DRC research interns for help with data collection and coding. We are also grateful to Francys Subiaul, Heidi Lyn, and Sara Chi for helpful discussions and comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Finally, a special thanks to Tanner, Kibby, AJ, and all the other dolphins and staff at DRC for their cooperation and patience during this project. This research complied with the current laws of the United States of America.

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Correspondence to Kelly Jaakkola.

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Trial showing Tanner imitating a person while blindfolded. (MPG 2283 kb)

Trial showing Tanner imitating a dolphin while blindfolded. (MPG 1811 kb)

Trial showing Tanner imitating a person while blindfolded. (MPG 2283 kb)

Trial showing Tanner imitating a dolphin while blindfolded. (MPG 1811 kb)

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Jaakkola, K., Guarino, E., Rodriguez, M. et al. Switching strategies: a dolphin’s use of passive and active acoustics to imitate motor actions. Anim Cogn 16, 701–709 (2013) doi:10.1007/s10071-013-0605-3

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  • Dolphins
  • Imitation
  • Echolocation
  • Response facilitation