Dolphins whack moles – on computer

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Dolphins whack moles – on computer

An underwater touchscreen designed to test dolphin intelligence and communication has been installed in an aquarium by US researchers – and there are early signs that the animals are taking to computer gameplay.

The dolphins can interact and make choices over a number of activities via the 2.5m screen, the first of its kind, which features dolphin-friendly apps and a symbolic keyboard. For safety the touchscreen is installed outside an underwater viewing window at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, with the dolphins’ touch detected optically.

The aim is to better understand dolphins' vocal learning and their capacity for symbolic communication. The habitat is fitted with equipment designed to record patterns of behaviour and vocalisations that emerge as they are able to request items, videos, interactions and images.

With no training or encouragement a younger dolphin called Foster was said to have shown immediate interest and expertise in playing a dolphin version of Whack-a-Mole, in which he tracks and touches moving fish on the touchscreen.

The project is being run by biophysicist Prof Marcelo Magnasco from Rockefeller University and Prof Diana Reiss, a dolphin cognition and communication research scientist at Hunter College, both institutions in New York. 

“It was surprisingly difficult to find an elegant solution that was absolutely safe for the dolphins, but it has been incredibly rewarding to work with these amazing creatures and see their reactions to our system,” said Prof Magnasco.

“It has always been hard to keep up with dolphins, they are so smart. A fully interactive and programmable system will help us follow them in any direction they take us.”

“We hope this technologically sophisticated touchscreen will be enriching for the dolphins and also enrich our science by opening a window into the dolphin mind,” said Prof Reiss.

“Giving dolphins increased choice and control allows them to show us reflections of their way of thinking and may help us decode their vocal communication.”

The scientists say they hope that information gleaned from the research will further increase empathy toward dolphins and inspire global policies for their protection.

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