Photo by: Christoffer Staib
Introduction: Early History and the Study of Dolphin Communication
Aquariums can take credit for first brining dolphins and whales to the world’s attention as remarkable mammals that have family life and social behaviour analogous to other mammals. Before this these animals were seen merely as sources of meat, oil and leather products. –Professor Murray A. Newman co-founder of the Vancouver Aquarium (1994)
Imagine a world without Flipper (or my generational equivalent, Darwin from Sea Quest DSV), without aquariums and without a concept of smart, social dolphins. Before the first half of the 20th century this was the world we lived in. It was a world without a Marine Mammal Protection Act that treated marine mammals as commodities if they could be exploited and nuisances if they could not be commercialized.
There was no campaign to “Save the Whales” and no impetus to want to protect these animals in the wild. This reality changed when the first captive dolphins, taken to be little more than background scenery in underwater adventure films, charmed us with a gregariousness and affability that soon drove millions to want to see them up close and in person.
In this first article, I will address the early history of captive research as well as how the study of dolphin communication is informed by captive studies. Each part of this series will explore the role captive animals have played in our understanding of their wild counterparts as well as how our opinions of dolphins have been shaped by our interactions with zoo housed individuals. I will also consider the role captive animals still have play in developing our understanding of evolution, cognition, ecology and conservation.
As we move forward I will also confront the ethical arguments related to captive research and outline some suggestions of how we, as a society, should take into consideration costs and benefits when working with animals under our care.
The Beginning of Captive Research
It is often the misunderstanding of those animal rights activists focused on removing animals from accredited zoos and aquaria that captive research is not overtly valuable to animals in the wild or broadly applicable to questions of ecology, evolution or conservation. This is the opinion expressed by WDC, members of the Ocean Conservation society and by hundreds of commentators on message boards attached to articles about the film Blackfish. This is blatantly false. There is no modern appreciation for dolphins without the understanding gleaned from decades of captive cetacean studies, and it is time to acknowledge that without captive dolphins we might still see these warm-blooded mammals as big fish.
In their chapter for the hugely influential book Cetacean Societies, Peter Tyack and the late Amy Samuels highlighted the earliest years in the study of cetaceans and the role of captivity in producing the first research results for small cetaceans (Samuels & Tyack, 2000). I will summarize some of their points here but I invite you to investigate this chapter for yourself to gain a rich appreciation for this history. Not surprisingly, the first ever research with dolphins was conducted in captivity. Small toothed whales were of little commercial value to the whaling industry so they were less well understood than the large baleen whales that had been hunted for years (Samuels & Tyack, 2000).
At first, those who housed these small whales didn’t realize the cognitive capabilities of their wards. Dolphins were taken to be part of the underwater scenery for studio sets like the St. Augustine Marine Studios. But what was once part of the background soon took center stage as the gregarious and intelligent dolphins began to show off. Pretty soon the antics of these Florida mammals caught the attention of local primatologists like D. O. Hebb and we had the first studies of dolphin social behavior (McBride & Hebb, 1948; McBride & Kritzler, 1951). Arthur McBride an early curator of Marine Studios wrote of dolphins in 1940:
[They are] an appealing and playful water mammal who remembers his friends and shows a strong propensity to jealousy and grief” (McBride, 1940).
Before the first captive facilities opened up in the 1930’s the public opinion on dolphins and whales were that they were more similar to large fish than anything else (Samuels & Tyack, 2000).
Even though scientists were starting to publish papers about these curiously smart sea creatures, their findings had not yet permeated the public consciousness. That misconception changed with the work of John C. Lilly, an eccentric but influential physician and neuroscientist who penned a series of books comparing the intelligence of dolphins to humans favorably (Lilly, 1961). One could easily argue that Lilly took his reverence for dolphin intelligence to the point of anthropomorphism (Gregg, 2013), but this man had an infectious passion for showing that these two species were very much on equal footing in terms of sentience and intelligence. In fact, the studies he published (Lilly, 1963) and the ideas he openly contemplated (Lilly, 1969) would form the basis for the “smart” dolphin we know today. For better or worse, Lily also affected a number of future researchers who would go on to preach the gospel of the very unfish-like dolphin.
To some John C. Lilly was a hero in the dolphin science community. But by the 1960’s few if any scientists took his work seriously. Lilly’s work with dolphins (especially on the language front) was mostly non-replicable by other scientists (see Samuels & Tyack, 2000 for a review of criticisms). In fact, the “Lilly effect” ended up causing good science to go unnoticed. In 1965 a husband and wife team of scientists named David and Melba Caldwell accidentally discovered a foothold in the study of dolphin communication: signature whistles. Working with captive animals in
Marineland Florida, the Caldwells noticed that when animals were separated they produced very individualized stereotyped calls. This was remarkably different than any other animal communication system known at the time. It wasn’t unusual for birds to make species specific calls for example (Wada, 2010), but for an animal to have individually specific calls, that was new (Caldwell & Caldwell, 1965).
The Caldwells were brilliant, and their science was impeccable, however, a study showing that dolphins had these “name-like” calls was not what the scientific community, already skeptical because of Lilly, wanted to hear. So the most important finding in the history of dolphin communication remained somewhat unexamined until 1990, when the influential Peter Tyack was asked to work with the Caldwells to summarize their life work in a book chapter. This led to a complete review of the signature whistle hypothesis and a reawakening of the study of dolphin communication.
From the late nineties to today researchers like Laela Sayigh and Vincent Janik have expanded our knowledge of these individually specific calls showing that signature whistles act as cohesion calls (Janik & Slater, 1998) and that it is the whistle shape, not voice, that conveys identity information (Janik, Sayigh, & Wells, 2006). More recently we have discovered that dolphins can copy each others’ whistles (King, Sayigh, Wells, Fellner, & Janik, 2013) and use these signature whistles to address each other (King & Janik, 2013). The majority of this work was performed with captive animals. In fact, using familiar and unfamiliar signature whistle playbacks performed to zoo-housed animals I was able to show multi-decade social recognition in dolphins, providing the first systematic evidence for “super-memory” outside of humans (Bruck, 2013).
If it weren’t for the Caldwells initial work with captive animals we would have no starting point to then go out and understand what wild dolphins are whistling about. Because we knew about signature whistles in zoos we were able to find them in the wild as well (Cook, Sayigh, Blum, & Wells, 2004; Janik, 2000; Sayigh, Tyack, Wells, & Scott, 1990).
In the wild dolphins swarm, move very fast and are very hard to see. Trying to figure out which animal is calling is challenging at best and impossible most of the time. None of this research would be possible if it were not for the presence of captive animals like those the Caldwells worked with in the early 60s. Without Marineland and the work that went on there, we would not have any idea that signature whistles even existed. In my own work it would have been impossible to determine that dolphins can remember each other’s calls for over 20 years without the controls afforded by zoos that keep good records of where their animals have been over the years and with whom.
Likewise, the whistle matching studies from Vincent Janik and Stephanie King would not have worked out if they were unable to observe the behavior in captive settings where the callers are easily identified. To end captive research now would cut short studies on non-signature whistles (the whistles we know are not signature but may be referential to other things), kin-recognition through vocalizations and we would lose the opportunity to delve further into signature whistles to ask if they are really similar to our idea of names.
Next time … What captive animals have taught us about cognition and the ethics of working with animals under human care. A question I am often asked is, How smart are dolphins? Next time we will address how captive dolphins have shed light on that puzzle and also consider how to assess costs, benefits and ethics when working with “smart” animals under human care.
By Jason Bruck, Ph.D.
Dr. Bruck is a Marie Curie Research Fellow at the Scottish Oceans Institute of the University of St. Andrews. He has worked with numerous marine mammal species both in the wild and under human care. Dr. Bruck is a specialist in marine mammal cognition and communication and his work on dolphin memory has been featured by National Geographic, Discovery Channel, Washington Post, NPR, BBC, TIME and has been reviewed in Nature and Science. He has presented his research at multiple conferences of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, the Animal Behavior Society and at the 169th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.