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Dolphins Understand Their Partner's Role in a Cooperative Task
A new study from researchers at Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys and The University of Western Australia shows that bottlenose dolphins not only cooperate with each other, but can do so with precise behavioral coordination never before demonstrated in nonhuman animals.
Dr. Kelly Jaakkola of the Dolphin Research Center noted that behaviors that look like cooperation in the wild do not necessarily mean that animals understand cooperation.
“Cooperative behaviors are actually found throughout the animal kingdom,” Dr. Jaakkola said. “From small birds collectively dive-bombing a predator to drive it away, to ants teaming up to carry a large piece of food. That’s not new. But the question is how they’re doing it. Are they simply acting individually in the same place and time, or do they actually understand that they need their partner, and actively coordinate with them?”
To get at this issue of understanding, the researchers created a task in which pairs of dolphins had to swim across a lagoon and each press their own underwater button simultaneously (within a 1-second time window), whether sent together or with a delay between partners of up to 20 seconds.
“The question was whether the dolphin sent first would wait for the other dolphin before pressing its button,” Dr. Jaakkola said, “and whether they could figure out a way to coordinate precisely enough to press at the same time.”
The results of the study showed that the dolphins not only waited for their partner, but also succeeded at the task with extreme precision, with the time between button presses in the latter trials averaging just 370 milliseconds. This shows that bottlenose dolphins understand how cooperation works, and suggests that the behavioral synchronization they show in the wild may in fact be a generalized cognitive ability that they can apply to a variety of situations.
In previous studies, animals’ understanding of cooperation has been explored primarily with a task in which two animals must pull the ends of a rope in the same direction to receive a food reward. However, the less stringent timing requirement of that task creates a window of opportunity in which the animals could theoretically succeed by using a simpler behavioral strategy (e.g., “Pull when a partner is there”), rather than by jointly intended coordination. The tight timing requirement of the button press study closes that window.
Dr. Stephanie King, from UWA Centre for Evolutionary Biology, noted that the dolphins’ precise coordination task was inspired by wild dolphin behavior.
Dr King said that “the behavioural synchrony we observe in wild dolphins can be remarkably precise, for example, the synchrony we observe in the coordinated displays of allied male dolphins is thought to actively promote cooperation. We wanted to test whether this was a skill they could apply to novel contexts.”
“The next step will be to investigate whether dolphins use vocal signals to coordinate behaviour during cooperative situations,” Dr King said. “This will further our understanding of the role that communication plays in facilitating cooperation in animal societies.”
The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, and supported by grants from Jim and Marjorie Sanger and The Branco Weiss Fellowship.
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Jaakkola K, Guarino E, Donegan K, King SL. 2018 Bottlenose dolphins can understand their partner’s role in a cooperative task. Proc. R. Soc. B 20180948. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2018.0948