Friday, August 28, 2009

DRC's Latest Research Study Published!

In the top picture, Administrative Director of Research Emily Guarino demonstrates how we asked the dolphins to choose which container held the alligator. In the second photo, she shows Tanner that he got the answer correct!

Research Explores Dolphins Understanding of Hidden Objects

Grassy Key… When you watch someone put chocolate into a cabinet, you know where to find the treat, even when you can’t see it. If a person shows you a gold coin in their hand, reaches into their pocket, and then, when they remove their hand, they are no longer holding the coin, you’ll have no problem figuring out where that gold must be. This ability to reason about things that have disappeared from view is known as object permanence. It has been studied in many land animals, and now Dolphin Research Center (DRC), located in Grassy Key, FL, is the first to explore this ability with marine mammals. Dolphin Research Center’s research paper on What Do Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) Understand About Hidden Objects was recently published by the prestigious scientific journal Animal Cognition.

“When you show an object to a human infant who’s only a few months old and then hide it, as far as the baby is concerned, it's as though the object ceases to exist. They won't look for it,” explains Research Director Dr. Kelly Jaakkola. “By the time humans are around 12 months old, they seem to realize that the object still exists and search for it even if they can’t see it.”
For this study, DRC’s researchers hid an object -- a plush toy alligator -- in one of three containers while the dolphins watched. They then asked the animals to choose the container holding the alligator. The dolphins chose correctly with a high rate of accuracy.

Several other non-human species have demonstrated this ability -- which scientists call "visible displacement" -- including gorillas, chimpanzees, parrots and dogs. DRC next explored a harder condition called “invisible displacement”. This time, they showed dolphins the plush alligator being hidden in a cylinder. They then placed the cylinder in one of three containers and emptied the alligator into the container where the dolphin could not see this action take place. They showed the dolphin the empty cylinder, and again asked it to choose the container holding the alligator.

Chief Operating Officer/Co-Founder Mandy Rodriguez places the alligator in a cylinder while Pax watches.

Apes are the only animals besides humans that demonstrate they can solve these kinds of trials. Since apes, humans and dolphins share other specific cognitive skills – including mirror self-recognition, ability to imitate and to understand symbols– DRC’s scientists fully expected that dolphins would also succeed with invisible displacement. Surprisingly, they didn’t.

“The reasons why remain unknown,” Jaakkola said. “There are many possibilities. They might lack an understanding of containment, since containers as we understand them do not exist in the sea. Also, in their underwater world, dolphins use echolocation, which is their natural sonar. If a fish disappears beneath the sand, for example, dolphins can echolocate and still perceive exactly where the fish is located. Perhaps they just don’t need this ability in the first place. Further research could address this puzzle.”

Even though the dolphins did not demonstrate the ability they expected, DRC’s research team is anything but disappointed. “Our studies are helping to build a more complete picture of dolphin cognition,” Jaakkola adds. “To do that, it’s just as important and fascinating to figure out what they can’t do as well as what they can, so that we can really begin to understand how they think and learn.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

DRC Welcomes Soldiers; Rededicates Veterans Garden

Enjoying a Dolphin Encounter at Dolphin Research Center with Merina are (l-r) Damon Ziegler, United States Marine Corps; Michael Fradera, United States Army; and Adam McCann, United States Marine Corps.

If smiles are any indication of a program’s success, then the recent visit to Dolphin Research Center (DRC) by participants from the Wounded Warrior Project and the Disabled American Veterans was a triumph. On Friday, August 14th, DRC treated 13 soldiers, all of whom are recovering from serious war-related injuries, and 8 Vietnam veterans to a special experience in the water with the dolphins. The men and their new dolphin friends swam, splashed, and played together in the Dolphin Encounter program, and constant smiles were seen everywhere.

After the dolphin swim, the men enjoyed a pizza lunch, donated by Papa John’s of Marathon. DRC’s Chief Operating Officer and Co-Founder Mandy Rodriguez served in the U.S. Marine Corps, seeing active duty in Vietnam. “It was an honor to welcome these men to Dolphin Research Center. All soldiers face challenges when they return home, regardless of whether they are injured. We’re delighted that spending time with the dolphins provided a welcome break from those challenges,” Mandy says.

After lunch, the soldiers joined DRC staff and other visitors for the formal rededication of our Veterans Garden. Ten years ago, military veterans participated in a special group program at Dolphin Research Center. As part of their experience, they built a lush, tropical garden area that the center then dedicated to veterans of all wars.

Since then, the garden has persevered through storms and other challenges, and over the last year has been replenished with new plantings, paved walkways and other additions. On Friday, August 14th, DRC rededicated the Veterans Garden in a moving ceremony attended by the Key West Navy Color Guard, soldiers from the Wounded Warrior Project and Disabled American Veterans, center staff and visitors.
A few months ago, Specialist William Carroll of the New Jersey Army National Guard Reserves returned from his second tour of duty in Iraq. He visited DRC and presented the center with a United States flag that flew over Baghdad along with a Certificate of Patriotism from the Special Operations Task Force-Central of Operation Iraqi Freedom II. At the garden rededication, personnel from the US Navy Color Guard performed a refolding ceremony with the flag

Mandy explained, “This garden is a peaceful oasis at DRC, and a place to remember and honor the service and sacrifice of our nation’s solders in every branch of the military. We are honored to receive this flag and certificate.”

U.S. Navy personnel from Key West refold a United States flag that was presented to Dolphin Research Center with a Certificate of Patriotism from the Special Operations Task Force-Central of Operation Iraqi Freedom II. Observing the ceremony are (pictured r-l) DRC’s Chief Operating Officer Mandy Rodriguez, and staff members Adam Keaton, Thomas Darapiza, and Stuart Strickland.