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Dolphin psychology may be similar to humans'

15th September 2003

By Shane Scara

In dolphins and theoretically in humans, peers may play a more important role than parents in teaching new behaviour.

This finding was made in a lengthy study conducted by the University of Southern Mississippi psychology department. The research was included in the August issue of Wildlife, a BBC-produced magazine, as part of a larger article on animal intelligence.

Student and faculty psychology researchers have been observing play behaviour of dolphins at the Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfport for the past six years.

According to Dr. Stan Kuczaj, the chairman of the psychology department at USM, observing the relationships of juvenile dolphins may help better understand childhood psychology.

Kuczaj wanted to find out where new behaviour originates in dolphins and which member of a dolphin's circle of relationships influences it most.

To best observe the dolphins, Kuczaj chose to work out of the Marine Life Oceanarium. Observing the dolphins was made easier in the clear water and glassed tanks. Also the dolphins could be observed from birth to adulthood.

Researchers took turns driving from Hattiesburg to Gulfport to observe the dolphins about one to two hours each day. They watched nine dolphins, born within the last seven years. Dolphins become adults at about 10 years of age.

The researchers studied the dolphins' play behaviour and social interaction to determine their role models.

"When the project started, most (researchers) believed it was the mother," Kuczaj said. "We found instead that while the mother is important, calves are most influenced by other calves."

Kuczaj also said calves generate most new behaviour that other dolphins imitate. Sometimes the adults or juveniles will do new things while calves -- the most active -- create more new games.

In the wild, dolphins travel in pods, or small groups of like age and gender. Adult males usually pool together, so it is rare for fathers to take a role in their calves' lives. Often mothers will give birth at the same time and juveniles will grow up with others of like age.

Rachel Thames, pursuing her doctorate in experimental psychology at USM, said that although dolphins were often given a toy to stimulate activity, they would also make their own toys, sometimes blowing bubbles and even pushing other calves around.

"The calf seems to voluntarily allow itself to be pushed as a toy," Thames said.

Thames said young dolphins will sometimes blow bubbles and chase them to the top of the tank. They often will increase the number of bubbles and try to bite them before they burst at the surface, she said.

Thames believes the challenge of catching the bubbles is more important than the result.

"In my opinion, we can look for the same influence by peers in human children," she said.

Thames and other USM researchers are now conducting a wild dolphin experiment in the Gulf of Mexico.