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Whistles with Dolphins

Trailblazing our knowledge of aquatic minds, Diana Reiss uses science to fight for dolphin welfare.



Diana Reiss-Hunter College, CUNY

It was a routine task for any dolphin trainer. But one November day in 1980, teaching a dolphin to eat defrosted fish turned into an experience that Diana Reiss still talks about almost 30 years later.

Reiss was working toward her doctorate in animal communication, and she had left the U.S. for a two-year research stay in France. On that day in November, in a small port town in the eastern Pyrenees, she was tossing fish to a captive female dolphin. If the animal swam away, Reiss would give her a time-out, backing 10 feet (three meters) away from the pool and standing motionless for a few minutes.

The dolphin quickly learned what Reiss wanted, but remained finicky about food and refused to eat fish unless the spiky fins were removed from the tails. Then one day, by mistake, Reiss gave the dolphin a fish with fins intact. The animal spit it out, stared at Reiss and retreated to the other end of the pool; there she remained in a vertical position for several minutes.

“I felt like I was getting a time-out,” Reiss recalls. “It seems like she was that conscious of what I was doing that she would use a signal like what I used for her to correct me back.”

To Reiss, now a professor of cognitive psychology at Hunter College in New York City, the episode was revelatory. “These are active minds. They are like little scientists—they test contingencies, they learn, they are very curious,” she says.

But in the 1970s, when she started studying dolphin minds, few shared her opinion. In fact, many scientists saw the animal mind as a black box that, if it had any content at all, would remain forever shut to humans.

For the past three decades, Reiss has struggled to pry open that box, and she has used her findings to push for animal welfare. Her team was the first to show that Asian elephants and bottlenose dolphins (the species starring in the television series Flipper) are able to recognize themselves in a mirror—a complex feat of self-awareness previously thought to exist only in the great apes.

“She was one of the first people who could figure out the appropriate technique to examine mirror self-recognition in nonhumans,” says Irene Pepperberg, a comparative psychologist at Brandeis University who has studied parrot behavior for 30 years. “Working it out for dolphins and elephants, you know, it takes significant smarts to figure out how to do that appropriately.”

Notoriously playful, dolphins have also caught scientists’ attention by creating play objects from their own bodies. In the wild, if dolphins are trapped or scared, they tense up their blowholes—the nostril on top of their heads—releasing bubbles of air. When the bubbles are big enough, water pressure causes them to collapse in the middle and form rings of air that rise slowly toward the surface like smoke rings. “We started noticing that they were producing these bubble rings in captivity,” Reiss says.

In safe aquarium settings, bubble rings are objects of play, not fear. After a quick breath at the surface, dolphins swim to the bottom of the pool and expel a long, silvery ring of air. In a graceful water ballet, they nudge the bubble ring around, make it bigger or smaller or swirl it out of shape, swim through it, or they snap it suddenly between their jaws to release a thousand tiny bubbles.

“It was the first example we saw of a nonhuman animal creating an object of play out of something out of its own body,” says Reiss, who believes the bubble rings are evidence that dolphins have an acute awareness of physical contingencies, past and future. “If [the rings] are not well formed, they’ll knock them apart right away and then go back and produce a really well formed one.”

A slight and energetic woman with long, black hair, Reiss now spends much of her time teaching at Hunter College. Her office is small and dimly lit, the desk cramped among reams of books and research papers. It is about as far from nature as it gets, and the faint sounds of Mahattan’s hustle and bustle seep through the window glass as a constant reminder of her urban surroundings. But as Reiss picks up an old book on marine mammal whistling, the stuffy air springs suddenly to life with her rendition of the tonal calls of faraway oceanic creatures.

Reiss’s expressive ways are no accident. She graduated from college with a degree in theater and went on to work as a set designer with the Manning Street Actors Theater in Philadelphia. In the mid-1970s the group went on a trip to Poland to visit Jerzy Grotowski, an experimental director who worked with a concept he called “theater laboratory”. One night, in an effort to break down the actors to “the basic components of acting,” Grotowski put them in the middle of a room and had them do animal calls. “It was like an epiphany,” Reiss recalls. “I just felt like I really wanted to study animal communication.”

Reiss left the theater behind, but not the drama. In 1985, she became involved in a highly publicized effort to rescue a 40-foot- (12-meter-) long, disoriented humpback whale out of San Francisco Bay, and she later joined a campaign to protect dolphins from being accidentally caught in tuna nets—the origins of the “dolphin-safe” label for tuna cans.

Recently she has been pushing to end the brutal slaughter of dolphins in the Japanese town of Taiji. Since the late 1940s fishermen here have gathered annually to round up and kill pods of animals during so-called drive hunts. According to Reiss, dolphin meat contains extremely high levels of mercury and is not a popular food in Japan. Instead the Japanese government claims the animals are pests that compete with fishermen for dwindling fish populations. But that makes little sense, Reiss says, because the fish typically caught by Taiji fishermen—such as yellowfin tuna—are too big for dolphins to eat.

“For me, as a steward, I feel like it’s my professional and personal responsibility to make people understand these animals and that [drive hunting] is incredibly inhumane,” she explains. “I don’t think most people are aware this is still going on, even in Japan.”

In spring 2004, Reiss went to the Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C., with two fellow scientists and a detailed presentation about the extraordinary intelligence and sensitivity of dolphins. They also brought a statement against drive hunting signed by 300 scientists.

One of the scientists who went with Reiss was Paul Boyle of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, at the time director of the New York Aquarium  and Reiss’s boss. “It didn’t take [her] more than five minutes to make me believe that yes, we should do something about [drive hunting],” recalls Boyle, who describes Reiss as “one of the most collaborative, helpful, bright scientists I’ve ever met.”

But the Japanese embassy proved harder to convince. Despite the efforts of Reiss and others, dolphin drive hunting continues in Japan and elsewhere. “That’s where science has to speak across cultural lines,” Reiss says, raising her voice. And she has no intention to stop speaking out until she is heard.

This article is provided by Scienceline a project of New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.

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