Dolphin Intelligence -- Simply Amazing

This has been shared around a lot but I was very impressed with dolphins following strategies of deferred gratification that some humans I know would be challenged by.

At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi, Kelly the dolphin has built up quite a reputation. 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 behaviour is interesting because it shows that Kelly has a sense of the future and delays gratification. She has realised 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. She has, in effect, trained the humans.

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.


  1. Kevin:

    Fascinating and extremely impressive!

  2. Matthew Slyfield:

    The ultimate test of general self-awareness is the mirror test. Does the subject recognize that the image in the mirror is itself or does it react as if it's another entity.

    Most apes will pass the mirror test, though a few species will at first react as if it's another entity, but will eventually figure it out.

    On the other hand most of the lesser primates, (monkeys) will fail the mirror test.

    My personal experience with dogs is mixed. Most fail the mirror test, but I've seen a few individual dogs that seem to recognize that the image in the mirror is themselves.

    For a long time, I've been hoping that someone would come up with a way to create some kind of sonar "mirror" and run the mirror test on dolphins.

  3. mlhouse:

    Do not let this one breed anymore because her offspring may take over the world.

  4. Matthew Slyfield:

    Maybe it would be an improvement if they did.

  5. mlhouse:

    I hope you volunteer to be the first one they convert into bait.

  6. Ward Chartier:

    Kelly in 2020!

  7. Roy Greenwell:

    I spent a large part of my time in the USN listening to dolphins and other sea life. I am convinced that dolphins speak a language to each other.

  8. Matthew Slyfield:

    What make you think our current leaders don't see us as bait.

  9. Akiva:

    I'm pretty sure the mirror test has been run on dolphins and they were successful, they performed as well as apes.

  10. Mr. Generic:

    I imagine that the trainers are going to have to have a talk to the dolphins about the mass seagull slaughter sometime soon.

  11. Dan Wendlick:

    There is a joke in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series to the effect that man believes themselves to be the most intelligent species on the planet because we can build things like airplanes, factories and atomic bombs, while all the dolphins ever to is swim around the Caribbean eating sushi. The dolphins believe they are more intelligent for precisely the same reason.

  12. John Tyler:

    ".....She has realised 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. She has, in effect, trained the humans......"

    Clearly, the dolphin is a capitalist and the trainer is a communist.
    The dolphin realized that her reward would remain constant regardless of the effort and ingenuity she demonstrated.
    So, to "game" the system, to receive rewards commensurate with her efforts, she devised the "torn paper " scheme.
    The commie trainer, too brain washed and immersed in communist ideology, is unable, or more likely, to fearful, to shift his behavior and adjust to the scam. After all, best not have your superiors suspect that you may be a "kulak," (and we all know the fate of real or imagined kulaks).

    The bird thing is somewhat different. Since the Soviet Dolphin Economic Management Bureau (or in the USA, known as Office of Diversity and Political Correctness ) had never anticipated and thus not established a fish reward to gull ratio, the commie (and maybe kulak) trainer, at great risk decided to use individual initiative (this, as we know is heresy) in determining how much fish to provide in exchange for a bird.
    The trainer did this only because dolphins cannot speak that therefore the trainer was at little risk to being "reported" to the NKVD (today known in the USA as Office of Diversity and Political Correctness; yep, they sure get around).

  13. RufusTBass:

    I did the mirror test on myself the other day--imagine my shock when my DAD was looking back at me!

  14. slocum:

    Well, I don't believe there are any documented instances of dogs passing the mirror test, so if you have one that can do it, you could be a famous amateur scientist.

  15. Matthew Slyfield:

    I may be wrong, but my understanding is that dolphin's visual acuity is too low for a standard mirror test to be effective.

  16. sean2829:

    Go read Freakonomics. The author described how candy rewards were given to his toddler for peeing in the toilet that resulted in a 2 year old peeing a very small amount at a time to maximize the reward. It doesn't take that much sophistication to figure out a simple reward system.

  17. Q46:

    It was Kelly who trained pigs to fly.

    Isn’t there a name for the attribution of Human characteristics on animals?

  18. DaveK:

    It's a great story, but I have to say it reminds me of an old joke. It's longish story, but leads up to the punchline...

    "...and the villains were charged with a gross violation of the Mann act!

    The Mann Act????

    Why yes, they had transported gulls across state lions for immortal porpoises!"

  19. Fromhere:

    Have any of the other dolphins demanded their “fair share” from Kelly yet?

  20. CapitalistRoader:

    Australian birds have weaponized fire
    Raptors, including the whistling kite, are intentionally spreading grass fires in northern Australia, a research paper argues. The reason: to flush out prey and feast