The Dolphins Who Watched TV

August 10, 2016 Sonar

The following are excerpts from two studies conducted in 1992 and 1989, regarding an exploration of whether dolphins could recognize TV as being a representation of reality. This would be opposed to the contemporary belief that other animals either cannot comprehend content on a TV, or that they believe it is actual reality.

The dolphins not only perfectly understood the content of the TV, but understood that it represents reality. This is an impressive feat that demonstrates cognitive sophistication (understanding that an image is separate from, but represents, some aspect of reality) and self-awareness.

Excerpts can be found in Thomas White’s In Defense of Dolphins, p. 59-60


To test if dolphins treat images on their TV as a representation of reality, we played the dolphins Keola, Hot Rod, Okoa, Tinkerbell and Maui a videotape of their trainer feeding them. The “feeding tape” had been filmed from the opposite side of the tank, zoomed in on the trainer, so it showed fish being thrown down to the dolphins, almost from the dolphins’ viewpoint. We hypothesized that if the dolphins viewed TV as a representation of reality they would swim away from the TV monitor in the big tank and go to their feeding station in the small tank. We were surprised by the actual result: Keola, Hot Rod, and to a lesser extent Tinkerbell, appeared to try to “catch” the TV fish by opening their mouths each time a fish was thrown. After doing this for about a minute they finally left the monitor and went to the small tank (where they were accustomed to being fed); the fact that TV may represent reality for dolphins was thus confirmed. This result occurred with Keola and Hot Rod the first time they saw the feeding tape, before any conditioning could occur. In one instance when Hot Rod was watching the feeding tape, the video came to an end with the trainer packing up her fish buckets and leaving, which resulted in Hot Rod rushing to the small tank. Because in our research subtle motions on the TV screen occasionally elicit mouth openings such as the dolphins’ “catching” response, more research is needed to fully understand the dolphins’ perception of TV, and to know whether the dolphin was trying to catch the fish, or just reacting to the motion on the TV screen. Our results bode well for the continued use of TV as a dolphin cognition research tool. (1)


It is worth remembering that the TV images are greatly decreased in image size, contrast, and resolution from that of the live situation. The important point to remember is not the perceptual feat alone which recognition of a TV image implies, but the conceptual accomplishment which is predicated on it. That is, the dolphin appears to interpret a scene of a TV display as an analog of the real world event. Yet, the dolphin distinguishes between the TV world and the real world in that the behavior is demonstrated away from the station such as tossing a ball through a hoop. The dolphin does not attempt to retrieve the ball shown on the TV screen, but instead retrieves the ball in its own tank and swims to the real world net for its “layup”. (2)


(1) Ken Marten and Suchi Psarakos, “Do Dolphins Perceive Television as a Representation of Reality?” Earthtrust Chronicles (Fall, 1992): 8.

(2) L.M. Herman, P. Morrel-Samuels, and L.A. Brown, “Recognition and Imitation of Television Scenes by Bottlenosed Dolphins,” paper presented at Eighth Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, Pacific Grove, California, December 7-11, 1989.

Photo courtesy