Date of Award

Spring 5-2017

Degree Type

Masters Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



Committee Chair

Donald Sacco

Committee Chair Department


Committee Member 2

Richard Mohn

Committee Member 2 Department

Educational Research and Administration

Committee Member 3

Deirdre Yeater

Committee Member 3 Department



Non-scientific literature consistently describes dolphins as “curious animals,” but there has been little systematic research on curiosity in dolphins. Curiosity in humans and certain non-human animal species, including birds and non-human primates, has been studied by examining individual differences in exploration and reactions to novel stimuli. Additionally, research has explored how human infants and non-human animals react when an event violates their expectations. The present study explored dolphins’ reactions to spontaneously surprising and expectation-violating stimuli. The reactions of dolphins, 15 bottlenose (Tursiops truncatus) and 6 rough-toothed (Steno bredanensis), at Gulf World Marine Park were analyzed in response to events that were spontaneously surprising and a possible violation of expectations paradigm. The results of this study supported the hypothesis that there would be a wide range of individual differences in dolphins’ reactions to the stimuli, including differences between species, sex, age class, and personality ratings. Subjects had a longer gaze duration, produced more bubble bursts and bubble trails, opened their mouths more, and were visibly startled more frequently while viewing a spontaneously surprising stimulus. Contrary to hypotheses, the subjects did not behave differently when shown an expectation-violating stimulus compared to a control stimulus. The results of this study provide insight into individual differences in dolphins’ curiosity-related behavior and stimuli that elicit the curiosity of these animals, both of which can improve environmental enrichment and the welfare of dolphins in human care.