Monday, February 4, 2013

Ten Things I Learned from Dr. Diana Reiss

We're only beginning to understand how dolphins communicate and their surprisingly complex underwater relationships and societies.  Dr. Diana Reiss has spent decades studying how dolphins think, relate and play.  She's a professor of psychology at Hunter College in New York City and directs dolphin research at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.  She was also a consulting scientist for the Oscar-winning film "The Cove," and is author of the book The Dolphin in the Mirror. Dr. Reiss spoke at 92Y last Thursday night to an enthralled audience. Here are some highlights from her talk:

1)  Dolphins are odontocetes - odontocetes are toothed mammals that preceded the mysticetes (non-toothed whales) that glean their food with bony plates.  They share their evolutionary ancestry with cows and deer, and are closely related to the hippo.

2) Dophins have been known to save people in distress.  Since ancient times there have been legends about people who have been saved by dolphins.  One recent account involves Elian Gonzalez, whose experience in 2000 ignited an international custody battle, was monitored by dolphins while he clung to an inner tube, waiting for help to arrive.

3) A dolphin recently presented his fin, tangled in fishing line, to a diver, requesting help.

4) The dolphin brain is second only to humans when measuring "encephalization quotient," or the relative measure of brain size to body.  The dolphin has a larger encephalization quotient than apes.

5) U.S. aquariums have not taken dolphins from the wild for 20 years.

6) Dolphins will manipulate and create toys.  They play with seaweed, carry rocks, and most amazingly, have been documented creating  their own "bubble ring" toys with their blow holes.  

7) In their underwater societies, dolphins will fish cooperatively, working together to create rings out of mud or bubbles to corral fish, or chase them onto shore, where they can easily be captured.

8) Dolphins have learned to recognize visual forms/symbols and associated sounds, and request specified toys by hitting underwater keyboard.  They have imitated the sounds by vocalizing while playing with the requested toys.

9) Dolphins can recognize themselves in a mirror.  A dolphin who has been marked will quickly recognize it in the mirror.  Only chimps, dolphins, elephants and crows have demonstrated MSR (mirror self recognition).

10) Dolphins have been found in the Hudson River and Gowanus Canal.   In June of 2012, a lone bottlenose dolphin was seen swimming in the Hudson River.  It passed away a few days later.   Just last week, a sick dolphin was also found in the Gowanus Canal.  It also died from unknown causes.

"It is not uncommon for large marine animals like dolphins and whales to swim right up to the openings of New York’s waterways, swept in during high tide and out again with the next high tide. Most of the time, the animals come and go without incident."
                                                                                                  - The New York Times 1/26/13

Dr. Reiss believes that dolphin shows are not ideal, because they tend to focus mainly on physical prowess, rather than their cognitive and social skills, but feels that some shows can be an effective way to educate and involve people with dolphin conservation.  Dolphin slaughter still goes on in Japan (as depicted in "The Cove") despite the story being exposed in the film.  Scientific facts are powerful and can help change policy.  Dr. Reiss suggests that we write our state department, and urge them to request the slaughters be stopped through diplomatic channels.  Learn more at

Follow the links to learn 10 things from:

Susan Petro
Gretchen Rubin
Marie Winn
"Little Heathens"
Richard Louv
"Ecological Intelligence"
Temple Grandin


TALON said...

They are truly intriguing creatures. I remember watching a National Geographic special on them years ago and one thing I learned was that they are able to recognize themselves in mirrors - only human animals do that! Very neat!

JGH said...

Dr. Reiss was talking about a new study coming out this month and I think I saw the CNN report about it the other said that dolphins can learn each other's names and call each other by an assigned sound. Pretty amazing!