C&B Notes

Incentives Matter: Dolphin Edition

A dolphin named Kelly at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies responded to incentives in an extraordinary way by demonstrating a pronounced ability to delay gratification and think ahead to the future.

All the dolphins at the institute are trained to hold onto any litter that falls into their pools until they see a trainer, when they can trade the litter for fish.  In this way, the dolphins help to keep their pools clean.  Kelly has taken this task one step further.  When people drop paper into the water she hides it under a rock at the bottom of the pool.  The next time a trainer passes, she goes down to the rock and tears off a piece of paper to give to the trainer.  After a fish reward, she goes back down, tears off another piece of paper, gets another fish, and so on.  This behavior is interesting because it shows that Kelly has a sense of the future and delays gratification.  She has realized that a big piece of paper gets the same reward as a small piece and so delivers only small pieces to keep the extra food coming.

Her cunning has not stopped there.  One day, when a gull flew into her pool, she grabbed it, waited for the trainers and then gave it to them.  It was a large bird and so the trainers gave her lots of fish. This seemed to give Kelly a new idea.  The next time she was fed, instead of eating the last fish, she took it to the bottom of the pool and hid it under the rock where she had been hiding the paper.  When no trainers were present, she brought the fish to the surface and used it to lure the gulls, which she would catch to get even more fish.  After mastering this lucrative strategy, she taught her calf, who taught other calves, and so gull-baiting has become a hot game among the dolphins.

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“Intelligence” is a term with many definitions and interpretations.  It’s difficult enough to measure in humans let alone other animals.  Large brains are traditionally associated with greater intelligence, and the brain of the adult bottlenose dolphin is about 25% heavier than the average adult human brain.  Generally though, larger mammals tend to have larger brains, and so a more accurate estimate of brain power comes from the ratio of brain size to body size – the “encephalisation quotient” (EQ).  While river dolphins have an EQ of 1.5, some dolphins have EQs that are more than double those of our closest relatives: gorillas have 1.76, chimpanzees 2.48, bottlenose dolphins 5.6.  The bottlenose’s EQ is surpassed only by a human’s, which measures 7.4 (Australopithecines – hominids that lived around 4m years ago — fall within the dolphin range: 3.25-4.72). But we don’t know enough about the workings of the brain to be sure of what these anatomical measurements truly represent.  Today, most scientists share the view that it is behavior, not structure, that must be the measure of intelligence within a species.


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