Switching strategies: a dolphin’s use of passive and active acoustics to imitate motor actions


Scientists have long debated the extent to which animals can imitate. Observations of bottlenose dolphins suggest a sophisticated capacity for social imitation, but little is known about the nature of these abilities. Here, we explore the behavioral mechanisms underlying a dolphin’s ability to copy motor actions while blindfolded (i.e., wearing eyecups). When a dolphin was asked to imitate a dolphin, a human, and then another dolphin blindfolded, his accuracy remained relatively consistent across models. However, his blindfolded echolocation dramatically increased when copying a human as compared to other dolphins, suggesting he actively switched between strategies: recognizing behaviors via characteristic sounds when possible, but via echolocation for the more novel sounding behaviors of the human. Such flexibility in changing perceptual routes demonstrates that the dolphin’s imitation was not automatically elicited, but rather results from an intentional, problem-solving approach to imitation.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Access options

Buy single article

Instant unlimited access to the full article PDF.

US$ 39.95

Price includes VAT for USA

Subscribe to journal

Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.

US$ 99

This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3


  1. Abramson JZ, Hernández-Lloreda V, Call J, Colmenares F (2013) Experimental evidence for action imitation in killer whales (Orcinus orca). Anim Cogn 16:11–22

  2. Bastian J (1967) The transmission of arbitrary environmental information between bottlenosed dolphins. In: Busnel RG (ed) Animal sonar systems, biology and bionics, vol 2. Laboratorie de Physiologie Acoustique, Juoy-en-Josas, France, pp 807–873

  3. Bates LA, Byrne RW (2010) Imitation: what animal imitation tells us about animal cognition. WIREs Cogn Sci 1:685–695

  4. Bauer GB, Johnson CM (1994) Trained motor imitation by bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Percept Mot Skills 79:1307–1315

  5. Boakes RA, Gaertner I (1977) The development of a simple form of communication. Q J Exp Psychol 29:561–575

  6. Bromham L, Phillips MJ, Penny D (1999) Growing up with dinosaurs: molecular dates and the mammalian radiation. Trends Ecol Evol 14:113–118

  7. Byrne RW (1994) The evolution of intelligence. In: Slater PJB, Halliday TR (eds) Behavior and evolution. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 223–265

  8. Byrne RW (2002) Imitation of novel complex actions: what does the evidence from animals mean? Adv Stud Behav 31:77–105

  9. Byrne RW, Russon AE (1998) Learning by imitation: a hierarchical approach. Behav Brain Sci 21:667–721

  10. Caldwell DK, Caldwell MC (1972) Vocal mimicry in the whistle mode in the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. Cetology 9:1–8

  11. Dawson BV, Foss BM (1965) Observational learning in budgerigars. Anim Behav 13:470–474

  12. Galef BG Jr (1988) Imitation in animals: history, definition, and interpretation of data from the psychological laboratory. In: Zentall TR, Galef B (eds) Social learning: psychological and biological perspectives. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, pp 3–28

  13. Harley HE, DeLong CW (2008) Echoic object recognition by the bottlenose dolphin. Comp Cog Behav Rev 3:46–65

  14. Harley HE, Roitblat HL, Nachtigall PE (1996) Object representation in the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus): integration of visual and echoic information. J Exp Psychol Anim B 22:164–174

  15. Harley HE, Putman EA, Roitblat HL (2003) Bottlenose dolphins perceive object features through echolocation. Nature 424:667–668

  16. Hayes KJ, Hayes C (1952) Imitation in the home-raised chimpanzee. J Comp Physiol Psych 45:450–459

  17. Herman LM (2002) Vocal, social, and self-imitation by bottlenosed dolphins. In: Dautenhahn K, Nehaniv C (eds) Imitation in animals and artifacts. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 63–108

  18. Herman LM, Tavolga WN (1980) The communication systems of cetaceans. In: Herman LM (ed) Cetacean behavior: mechanisms and functions. Wiley-Interscience, New York, pp 149–209

  19. Herman LM, Pack AA, Hoffmann-Kuhnt M (1998) Seeing through sound: dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) perceive the spatial structure of objects through echolocation. J Comp Psychol 112:292–305

  20. Heyes C (2011) Automatic imitation. Psychol Bull 137:463–483

  21. Hoppitt W, Laland KN (2008) Social processes influencing learning in animals: a review of the evidence. Adv Stud Behav 38:105–165

  22. Hurley S, Chater N (2005) Introduction: the importance of imitation. In: Hurley S, Chater N (eds) Perspectives on imitation: from neuroscience to social science, vol 1. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 1–52

  23. Jaakkola K (2012) Cetacean cognitive specializations. In: Vonk J, Shackleford T (eds) The Oxford handbook of comparative evolutionary psychology. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 144–165

  24. Jaakkola K, Guarino E, Rodriguez M (2010a) Blindfolded imitation in a bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus). Int J Comp Psychol 23:671–688

  25. Jaakkola K, Guarino E, Rodriguez M, Erb L, Trone M (2010b) What do dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) understand about hidden objects? Anim Cogn 13:103–120

  26. Janik VM (2000) Whistle matching in wild bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Science 289:1355–1357

  27. Janik VM (2009) Acoustic communication in delphinids. Adv Stud Behav 40:123–157

  28. Kuczaj S, Solangi M, Hoffland T, Romagnoli M (2008) Recognition and discrimination of human actions across the senses of echolocation and vision in the bottlenose dolphin: evidence for dolphin cross-modal integration of dynamic information. Int J Comp Psychol 21:84–95

  29. Marino L (2002) Convergence of complex cognitive abilities in cetaceans and primates. Brain Behav Evolut 59:21–32

  30. Meltzoff AN (1996) The human infant as imitative generalist: a 20-year progress report on infant imitation with implications for comparative psychology. In: Heyes CM, Galef BG Jr (eds) Social learning in animals: the roots of culture. Academic Press, New York, pp 347–370

  31. Pack AA, Herman LM (1995) Sensory integration in the bottlenosed dolphin: immediate recognition of complex shapes across the senses of echolocation and vision. J Acoust Soc Am 98:722–733

  32. Pack AA, Herman LM, Hoffmann-Kuhnt M, Branstetter BK (2002) The object behind the echo: dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) perceive object shape globally through echolocation. Behav Process 58:1–26

  33. Reiss D, McCowan B (1993) Spontaneous vocal mimicry and production by bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus): evidence for vocal learning. J Comp Psychol 107:301–312

  34. Richards DG, Wolz JP, Herman LM (1984) Vocal mimicry of computer-generated sounds and vocal labeling of objects by a bottlenosed dolphin, Tursiops truncatus. J Comp Psychol 98:10–28

  35. Subiaul F (2010) Dissecting the imitation faculty: the multiple imitation mechanisms (MIM) hypothesis. Behav Process 83:222–234

  36. Tayler CK, Saayman GS (1973) Imitative behaviour by Indian Ocean bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) in captivity. Behaviour 44:286–298

  37. Tomasello M (1999) The cultural origins of human cognition. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

  38. Tomasello M, Kruger AC, Ratner H (1993) Cultural learning. Behav Brain Sci 16:495–552

  39. Tyack PL (1986) Whistle repertoires of two bottlenosed dolphins, Tursiops truncatus: mimicry of signature whistles? Behav Ecol Sociobiol 18:251–257

  40. van Baaren R, Janssen L, Chartrand TL, Dijksterhuis A (2009) Where is the love? The social aspects of mimicry. Philos Trans R Soc B 364:2381–2389

  41. Whiten A (2000) Primate culture and social learning. Cogn Sci 24:477–508

  42. Whiten A (2001) Imitation and cultural transmission in apes and cetaceans. Behav Brain Sci 24:359–360

  43. Whiten A, Ham R (1992) On the nature and evolution of imitation in the animal kingdom: reappraisal of a century of research. Adv Study Behav 21:239–283

Download references


We wish to thank Jodi Skjegstad and several DRC research interns for help with data collection and coding. We are also grateful to Francys Subiaul, Heidi Lyn, and Sara Chi for helpful discussions and comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Finally, a special thanks to Tanner, Kibby, AJ, and all the other dolphins and staff at DRC for their cooperation and patience during this project. This research complied with the current laws of the United States of America.

Author information

Correspondence to Kelly Jaakkola.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Trial showing Tanner imitating a person while blindfolded. (MPG 2283 kb)

Trial showing Tanner imitating a dolphin while blindfolded. (MPG 1811 kb)

Trial showing Tanner imitating a person while blindfolded. (MPG 2283 kb)

Trial showing Tanner imitating a dolphin while blindfolded. (MPG 1811 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Jaakkola, K., Guarino, E., Rodriguez, M. et al. Switching strategies: a dolphin’s use of passive and active acoustics to imitate motor actions. Anim Cogn 16, 701–709 (2013).

Download citation


  • Dolphins
  • Imitation
  • Echolocation
  • Response facilitation