Can Dolphins Cooperate to Solve a Novel Task?

Kelley Winship, University of Southern Mississippi


Bottlenose dolphins cooperate in a variety of contexts, including foraging,acquiring mates, playing, and assisting distressed conspecifics. To better understand the capacity for cooperative behaviors, animals are often given tasks that require pairs of animals to coordinate their actions in order to receive a reward. This paper reports the results of an aquatic version of one such task: cooperative rope-pulling. Three groups of captive bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) were given an apparatus that could most easily be opened by the two animals working together. Two untrained adult males at one location were successful in opening the apparatus together, sharing the food and engaging in cooperative behaviors following their success. These results demonstrate that dolphins can solve a novel task via cooperation, but the failure of the other dolphins to do so suggests that personality, dominance, and social structure influence willingness to cooperate.