Dolphins Like Watching TV, Just Like Humans

Did you know that in India, dolphins have been granted “non-human person” status? This means they are given basic human rights that protect them the same way humans are protected. The reason for this is that dolphins and humans have a lot in common. They are social and cognitive animals, they speak different dialects and give each other names, they come in second in brain size relative to their body (right after humans), and the human genome and dolphin genome are essentially the same. What’s more, that’s just scratching the surface of our similarities with this remarkable marine creature. Recently, one more very interesting intersection has been discovered between humans and dolphins: we both love watching television.

Dolphins Need Entertainment Too

It’s no secret that dolphins are much less happy in captivity, so in order to make their stay more enjoyable, marine facilities try to keep them entertained in various ways. Sometimes they are given typically pool toys to play with, like noodles and rings. However, recently, researchers at Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder in Key Largo, Florida decided to place some great big TV’s beside the underwater windows of their tanks. What they found was that dolphins were not only paying attention to the videos on the TV’s, they seemed to be enjoying what they were watching.

There have been two different species of dolphin present and watching TV at the Key Largo facility: one group of 11 bottlenose (Tursiops truncatus) dolphins, and one group of five rough-toothed (Steno bredanensis) dolphins. Both watched jungle and ocean scenes from Planet Earth, a BBC nature documentary, and also episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants. Choosing these starkly contrasting options was meant to see if dolphins preferred watching something akin to their own life, in a natural setting, over a cartoon.

Dolphins’ TV Preferences Are Revealed

The dolphins’ behavior while watching the two shows was closely monitored by researchers. They noted aggressive behavior, like head and body jerks and jaw claps, as well as signs of interest, indicated by a dolphin raising their chin or pressing their melon (forehead), against the glass near the TV. Some dolphins also blew bubbles, which can indicate either aggression or interest. Researchers suspect the dolphins’ TV-watching bubbles were more aligned with aggressive behavior.

What was found, as published in Zoo Biology, is that the dolphins didn’t seem to show a preference for one show over the other. Whatever was going on, they were equally interested in it. However, they did make some other interesting revleations. Some dolphins seemed notably more interested in the TV shows than others. In particular, the rough-toothed dolphins were found to react more to the TV than the bottlenose dolphins, displaying more bubble and interest behaviors.
Another thing they noted was that the two species spent the same amount of time watching the TVs. Curiously, even hearing-impaited dolphins paid attention to the TVs equally, regardless of which video was playing. That seems to indicate the capitvating aspect of the TV lies more in the moving picture and less in the sound.

What Can We Do With This Information?

Dolphins have such large brains and cognitive abilities, scoring better than even great apes in these departments. They need to be stimilated in order to be happy, so being in captivity can really do a number on their mental health. Unfortunately, captivity can cause some dolphins to become unfit for release. Television could be a great way to keep their brains stimilated, thus keeping them happier.

On the science front, studying dolphin responses to different videos could open a lot of doors in terms of understanding how this great marine mammal thinks.

NEXT: Dolphins are super smart, but animals a little closer to home might not be as bright as their owners would like to believe. Why dogs aren’t really as smart as we think they are.