GRASSY KEY — In a lagoon in the Keys, trainer Emily Guarino blindfolds a male dolphin named Tanner with special latex goggles. "You ready, Tanner?" Guarino asks the young dolphin, waiting beside his companion Kibby.
At a command, another trainer gets Kibby to say "hello" by flapping his fins on the water, splashing noisily in the enclosed lagoon at the Dolphin Research Center, which houses 22 dolphins and is one of the leaders in dolphin cognitive studies.
"Can you imitate what Kibby is doing?" Guarino asks Tanner. Within seconds, Tanner is splashing "hello" — a seemingly extraordinary feat given the blindfolded dolphin appears to be using only sound to perceive and imitate the actions of his fellow dolphin.
It turns out dolphins are master imitators that somehow can "see" their environment despite blindfolds. But exactly how such a dolphin can mimic another's action is a matter of ongoing study.
Kelly Jaakkola, director of the nonprofit marine mammal research center, said the research to better understand dolphin intelligence will surely help further their conservation. She said such study may also be helpful in better grasping the complexities of human intelligence.
"It's human nature to care more about animals we perceive as intelligent. So the more we can showcase that intelligence, we give people a way to connect, to care and therefore conserve," she said.
Just how blindfolded dolphins can pick up on the actions of other dolphins — whether through echolocation, sonar or other means — is still unclear. Echolocation refers to the sounds dolphins and other animals naturally emit to locate objects and navigate.
"Dolphins have this ability to echolocate by sonar, very similar to bats. And so one possibility is he is echolocating on that and he is 'seeing' the behavior with sound," Jaakkola said. "However there is another possibility as well. Maybe he's recognizing the characteristic sound of the behavior like if I asked you to close your eyes and I clap my hands, you would still be able to imitate that by recognizing the characteristic sound."
The study used three dolphins for its tests: Tanner was always the blindfolded subject and A.J. and Kibby served as demonstrator dolphins. The study titled "Blindfolded Imitation in a Bottlenose Dolphin" is published in the International Journal of Comparative Psychology.
Tanner, who was previously trained in wearing the opaque latex eyecups, already knew how to imitate other dolphins' behaviors without blindfolds on. Nearly every time his eyes were covered, Tanner was able to imitate his playmate Kibby's actions, the researchers reported.
The study tested 19 motor and eight vocal behaviors, from waving a fin, to bobbing up and down, to spinning and even giggling. The study was spread over 19 sessions in 11 weeks.
Since researchers sought to focus on whether dolphins can imitate companions while blindfolded, all the behaviors used in the study were already known to the dolphins.
Previous dolphin studies have shown dolphins can copy companion's whistles and motor behaviors, as well as computer-generated sounds. Dolphins also have a capacity to copy humans to some extent, according to Jaakkola.
The results are not at all surprising to Robin W. Baird, a research biologist at Cascadia Research Collective based in Olympia, Wash.
"This actually demonstrates that they are able to know what is going on in their environment at a different level than what they can just see," said Baird, who works mostly with wild sea animals — such as dolphins, whales and seals — and did not participate in the study.