Visible and invisible displacement with dynamic visual occlusion in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops spp)


Anticipating the location of a temporarily obscured target—what Piaget (the construction of reality in the child. Basic Books, New York, 1954) called “object permanence”—is a critical skill, especially in hunters of mobile prey. Previous research with bottlenose dolphins found they could predict the location of a target that had been visibly displaced into an opaque container, but not one that was first placed in an opaque container and then invisibly displaced to another container. We tested whether, by altering the task to involve occlusion rather than containment, these animals could show more advanced object permanence skills. We projected dynamic visual displays at an underwater-viewing window and videotaped the animals’ head moves while observing these displays. In Experiment 1, the animals observed a small black disk moving behind occluders that shifted in size, ultimately forming one large occluder. Nine out of ten subjects “tracked” the presumed movement of the disk behind this occluder on their first trial—and in a statistically significant number of subsequent trials—confirming their visible displacement abilities. In Experiment 2, we tested their invisible displacement abilities. The disk first disappeared behind a pair of moving occluders, which then moved behind a stationary occluder. The moving occluders then reappeared and separated, revealing that the disk was no longer behind them. The subjects subsequently looked to the correct stationary occluder on eight of their ten first trials, and in a statistically significant number of subsequent trials. Thus, by altering the stimuli to be more ecologically valid, we were able to show that the dolphins could indeed succeed at an invisible displacement task.

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We are indebted to Sea World, San Diego, for allowing us access to the animals, and especially to Dr. Judy St. Leger, DVM, and to Scott Collins, Brittany Harris and the rest of the Animal Care Staff at Rocky Point Preserve, for their support and encouragement. Special thanks to Whitney Friedman and Adam Tinkle who served as observers on this project, and to two anonymous reviewers for helpful suggestions regarding our analyses and text. This research was funded in part by a Jacobs Fellowship and an NSF GRFP to JS.

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Correspondence to Christine M. Johnson.

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Johnson, C.M., Sullivan, J., Buck, C.L. et al. Visible and invisible displacement with dynamic visual occlusion in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops spp). Anim Cogn 18, 179–193 (2015) doi:10.1007/s10071-014-0788-2

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  • Object permanence
  • Invisible displacement
  • Bottlenose dolphins
  • Occlusion
  • Secondary representations