Do We Need Apps to Learn About Dolphin Intelligence?

June 13, 2017 Laura Bridgeman

A team of researchers recently unveiled a new experiment that uses touchscreens and apps in order to investigate dolphin intelligence. While this might sound like a boon to the realm of animal cognition, it raises some important questions about the ways that research is done, and reveals how certain archaic attitudes within the scientific community persist, to the detriment of both science and other-than-human beings.

The experiment involves an eight-foot underwater touchscreen that dolphins can use to interact with “dolphin-friendly apps”. Researchers are hoping to investigate dolphin’s vocal learning, symbolic communication, and choice – in this case, the choices between videos, images and interactions that are available on the app.

This experiment immediately calls to mind the plight of human youngsters, whose widespread addiction to video games and apps like Instagram are seen as something of a concern – with Instagram, for example, having been labeled as among the worst things for self-esteem. Yet, the dolphins being subjected to this experiment are youngsters themselves; they are Millenials, in fact, being between the ages of 9 and 25. Perhaps it is only natural that they become hooked on smart-screen technology. Maybe in the not-too-distant future, they will be perusing Amazon Prime or the plethora of oh-so-popular food delivery apps.

Of course, this is a ridiculous notion: these dolphins never get to decide when or what they eat, nor are they allowed to make any other decisions about their lives.

Ironically, the issue of having control over one’s life is precisely what lead researcher Diana Reiss hopes to investigate. She claims that the technology gives dolphins “increased choice and control [and] allows them to show us reflections of their way of thinking”, yet the degree of choice on offer will be limited within the human-created confines of the app. She goes on to say that she hopes the experiment will “enrich our science by opening a window into the dolphin mind.” Yet what she and her team seem not to question is: in whose minds are you opening that window? In the case of these dolphin test subjects, who were all born into captivity, the question of whether they are representative of their wild counterparts is a relevant one. Captives live impoverished lives in many regards; the stresses placed on them by such unnatural conditions are likely to skew results in ways that the researchers may not be aware of.

How might these images of living swimming fish, and other videos that the team plans on subjecting the dolphins to, affect them psychologically?

It may be that those involved in this touchscreen experiment find it irrelevant who these dolphins are or how they feel about their lives. That’s not what this type of science tends to be about, after all. Reiss gushes about a young dolphin named Foster playing a version of whack-a-mole on the screen, but with swimming fish rather than moles. Has she, or anyone on her team, considered the fact that Foster has likely never seen a living fish in his entire life? The only fish he encounters are already dead, and are deposited into his mouth by human hands, coming from plastic buckets placed on the concrete beside the pool. How might these images of living swimming fish, and other videos that the team plans on subjecting the dolphins to, affect them psychologically? Surely this type of question could help open that window into these dolphin’s minds.

Using captive dolphins as experimental subjects is the kind of thing that can be expected from Reiss, though she should – and does – know better. She is best known for her work with Lori Marino that resulted in proof of dolphin self-awareness, through the iconic mirror self-recognition test. The results rocked the scientific world, and compelled Marino to swear off captive dolphins studies for good, saying that there is simply no justification for the physical and psychological suffering captivity causes cetaceans. Marino went on to develop, along with Toni Frohoff, the Interspecies Collaborative Research Paradigm: a model for research that emphasizes the moral obligation scientists now have in order to accommodate the existing knowledge of cetacean intelligence. And it presents ways that this can be done with wild individuals. Marino and Frohoff point out that some of the most compelling studies of cetaceans have been in the wild, where dolphins can be observed in their natural environment and can even choose to participate in research. The focus is placed on the wellbeing of the dolphins, the highest of ethical standards being the cornerstone of the paradigm, since this is what dolphins deserve.

When will they begin using their findings in the service of those they study, as is arguably their moral obligation?

Fortunately for the dolphins in this study, they are slated to be moved to a seaside sanctuary in the near future, meaning retirement to the ocean for the remainder of their lives. One wonders whether Reiss, and researchers like her, will lament their freedom from captivity as the loss of test subjects for experiments? This question raises others: how much information it will take, how many results will they need to acquire about cetacean intelligence before they decide to stop using them in captive experiments? When will they begin using their findings in the service of those they study, as is arguably their moral obligation? Only time will tell.

Photo credit Wildquest Bimini.