Research: Summaries

seeing through sound

understanding language

understanding questions

communication through television


pointing gestures

awareness of one's own behaviors

awareness of one's own body parts

behavioral mimicry

dolphin research publications

whale research

Behavioral Mimicry

Imitation of another requires that the observer model its own behavior after that of the demonstrator. The observer must therefore relate its body image to the body plan of the demonstrator. In the wild, dolphins perform many synchronized behaviors, such as swimming and surfacing in tandem, in effect seemingly closely copying one another. We have studied imitation capabilities on the laboratory. Two dolphins are stationed side by

Dolphin imitates human in a variety of behaviors.
side, each with its own trainer. A visual screen is placed between the pair such that the dolphins can see each other and their own trainer, but not the other's trainer. One dolphin acts as the demonstrator, carrying out some particular behavior requested by its trainer. The second dolphin acts as the imitator, by observing the demonstrator and if requested by its trainer, imitating that behavior. In our studies, a wide variety of behaviors were copied successfully. The roles of the dolphins, as demonstrator and as imitator, were reversible, either dolphin acting in either role. Surprisingly, this imitative ability extended not only to the behavior demonstrated by another dolphin, but to behaviors demonstrated by humans. For example, if the human performs a pirouette, the dolphin will do likewise, and if the human raises a leg in the air the dolphin will raise its tail. The dolphin thus relates its body image to the human's body plan, using analogies as necessary. For example, its uses its tail as an analogy to our leg. The dolphin is also capable of imitating the behavior of a human displayed on a television screen viewed through an underwater window. Imitation of the television model is as accurate as imitation of a live model. Dolphins are also excellent vocal mimics, as demonstrated by other work we've performed. Dolphins appear to be the only species, other than humans, capable of both reliable vocal and behavioral mimicry.

Herman, L. M. (in press). Vocal, social, and self-imitation by bottlenosed dolphins. In C. Nehaniv & K. Dautenhahn (Eds.). Imitation in Animals and Artifacts. Cambridge, MA. MIT Press.
Xitco, M. J., Jr. (1988). Mimicry of modeled behaviors by bottlenose dolphins. Unpublished master's thesis, University of Hawaii, Honolulu.
Richards, D. G., Wolz, J. P. & Herman, L. M. (1984). Vocal mimicry of computer generated sounds and vocal labeling of objects by a bottlenosed dolphin, Tursiops truncatus. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 98, 10-28.

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