Animal Intelligence Rote Behavior vs Creative Intelligence in Dolphins

When studying the creative intelligence of another species, it can be difficult to separate deliberate creative responses from imperfect rote response behavior. Many previous intelligence and language studies in dolphins did not distinguish between them. In most cases, all that was asked of the dolphin was to react to each type of stimulus with a particular action.

Yet every trained animal understands that certain words are connected with certain expectations. When a trained Seaworld dolphin sees a ball on a pole swing out, it knows that it is supposed to leap out of the water to touch that ball, and that after it does so, it will get a fish. This is operant conditioning, a learned association with specific stimuli.

Dolphins are exceptionally good at mimicry, which further muddies the waters. In one study, a 7-year-old bottlenose dolphin was able to mimic another dolphin’s behavior even after being blindfolded. The same dolphin had already been trained to retrieve objects and do all kinds of other tricks. A talent for mimicry helps a dolphin learn rote behaviors.

Although mimicry does not itself demonstrate creative intelligence, visual mimicry by using a non-visual sense does demonstrate problem-solving skills. Problem-solving skills which can be applied to a previously unknown problem is a sign of creative intelligence.

Dolphins which do not interact with people in a controlled environment also demonstrate problem-solving skills, as well as tool-using skills. Wild bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Western Australia, use marine sponges to protect their snouts while foraging on the seafloor. However, Dr. Michael Krutzen has demonstrated that the behavior is transmitted from mother to female offspring and that all sponge-using dolphins are closely related. One dolphin at some point in the past demonstrated creative intelligence. Her descendents are learning the same trick by rote.

Dr. Karen Pryor tried a different approach to studying creative intelligence in dolphins. When working with a pair of rough-toothed dolphins living at Sea Life Park, she rewarded the dolphins only for an original behavior, and withheld fish whenever a behavior was repeated. After 2 weeks, the dolphins had run out of familiar behaviors and  became “almost despondent.” However, each dolphin finally came up with a new move, which was reinforced. At that point, both dolphins became excited and offered so many kinds of new behaviors that the researchers “could hardly choose what to throw fish at.”

The same experiment was repeated with human volunteers. After initial frustration or anger, it took the volunteers approximately the same amount of time to understand that reward reinforcement was being offered for previously unseen behaviors. However, in contrast to the dolphins, who became excited, the human volunteers were relieved to have figured it out.

Most recently, Dr. Denise Herzing has managed to recruit wild dolphins into initiating interaction and communication with humans, even to the point of developing a simple common language. These dolphins were not trained to provide a specific behavior in response to a specific stimuls. Instead, they were free to discover that they could train their humans to throw the corresponding prop into the water by pressing the correct key. The spotted dolphins even brought a group of wild bottlenose dolphins into the game. This is creative intelligence at work.