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First of its kind, underwater touchscreen to help scientists probe dolphin intelligence

Dolphins from the National Aquarium in Baltimore will use an interactive, underwater touchscreen to help scientists better understand their intelligence.

Dolphins from the National Aquarium in Baltimore will take part in a one of a kind experiment helping scientists understand more about the intelligence of these beloved underwater mammals.

With the help o a touchscreen, specifically designed for this purpose, researchers are hoping to gather more information about dolphin vocal learning and communication, their capacity for symbolic communication, behavior patterns.


The eight-foot touchscreen has been placed outside an underwater viewing window and it will register the dolphin’s touches by using an optical system specifically designed expressly for this experiment. The devices contains dolphin-friendly “apps” and according to scientists, the animal will be able to request items, videos, interactions and images.

The research team is made up of specialists from Rockefeller University and Hunter College.

“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,” says Diana Reiss, a dolphin cognition and communication research scientist and Professor in the Department of Psychology at Hunter College. “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.”

And the system will evolve as the dolphins interact with it, according to the programmers.

“The interactive system was designed to engage the dolphins without requiring explicit training. It is an open system in which the dolphins’ use of the touchscreen will shape how the system evolves,” says Ana Hocevar, a postdoctoral research scientist who built the hardware and programmed its functionality

As with humans, the new devices has already sparked the interest of one of the younger dolphins. Without any previous training, Foster become curious about the device and started playing the human equivalent of Whack-a-Mole, tracking and touching fish on the screen.


This research is funded by The National Science Foundation, The Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fund for Strategic Innovation, and a fellowship from the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation, and it is carried out in partnership with the National Aquarium.

“Using methods from statistical physics to analyse dolphin communication will open the door to understand how other animals communicate, which could be a game-changer in understanding how even human language originated,” said Krastan Blagoev, the program director for the National Science Foundation’s Physics of Living Systems program.

During the experiment, the scientists will record the dolphins’ movements and communication as they interact with the new technology.

Sylvia Jacob