Dolphin Cognition Research at Epcot
Our visit to the Epcot center started with the "Dolphin Exploration and Education Program," DEEP. We were in a group of 16 people on a "backstage" tour of the "Living Seas" exhibit at Epcot. The researchers at Epcot are working on teaching the dolphins a symbolic language through a special underwater "keyboard," modeled after the similar experiments using chimps.
The "keyboard" consists of four panels arranged sort of like a barn. The "keys" are circular openings that have an object suspended by wires in the middle. A key is pressed by putting something in the opening. The researcher/divers use their hands, the dolphins use their snouts (rostrums, if you want to get technical). The keys represent nouns such as: "herring", "ball", "cannon"; verbs like: "search", "get" and "give", plus conjunctions and such: "and", "at", and "in". The symbols are arranged in simple groups of different shapes on the four panels.
Dolphins have good eyesight (not quite as good as human sight, but typical for mammal predators), and extremely good perception through echolocation. Using echolocation only, a dolphin can distinguish a 4-inch sphere from a 4-inch cube at 100 yards. They can also distinguish a hollow sphere vs. a solid sphere or a steel sphere vs. a plastic sphere at 100 yards. They also have good hearing. All of these senses are used to give them feedback in learning the keyboard.
The objects suspended in the openings are abstract symbols, not necessarily related to what they represent. For example, the object for "sardine" isn't a sardine, in fact it is a sand dollar. The idea of the research is to determine if the dolphins can use abstract symbols to represent things, much like we use words to represent things and actions.
As each key is "pressed", the ring around the object lights up and the English word for that symbol is played from a recording through the water. At this point, they want to give the dolphins lots of ways to distinguish the symbols: by position, by sight, by echolocation or by sound.
They are in the early stages, but the dolphins seem to be making good progress toward understanding and communicating simple instructions through the set of about 30 symbols. They have had two males for a number of years, and got three females from the navy a few years back. One of the females turned out to be 2 weeks pregnant when she arrived, so they now also have a young calf.
They explained how their research works, and we got to pretend to help them collect data. Mostly, we learned that it is very hard to accurately record all the results of the work with the dolphins and the underwater keyboard.
In addition to being very smart, dolphins are very fashion conscious. One of their favorite toys is a simple ring, like a small hula-hoop. Whoever gets to it first will wear it, either like a ring on a pectoral fin, or like a necklace, as pictured below.
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