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Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 1985 Winter;9(4):667-81.

Reporting presence or absence of named objects by a language-trained dolphin.


Referential "reporting" was defined as the transmission of information about the presence or absence of symbolically-referenced real-world objects. In Experiment 1 two bottlenosed dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), trained in earlier studies to carry out instructions conveyed by imperative sentences expressed in artificial gestural or acoustic languages, each gave spontaneous indications that an object referenced in an imperative was absent from their tank. In Experiment 2 the dolphin tutored in the gestural language was taught to make explicit reports of object absence by pressing a "No" paddle in response to imperatives referencing an absent object. Absence was reported correctly on 84% of 97 missing-object probes inserted at random intervals among 598 sentences referring to objects that were present. Reports were typically made after active search of the tank for an average of 15.0 sec. False reports, that objects present were absent, were few (7.5%). In Experiment 3, the dolphin was taught an interrogative sentence form that enabled us to ask direct questions about the presence or absence of specific objects. Responses by the dolphin on the No paddle indicated absence, while responses on a "Yes" paddle indicated presence. From one to three objects were shown the dolphin and then placed in the tank in a discrete-trial procedure. In response to the interrogative, reports or object presence or absence were better than 91% correct with a single object in the tank and either that object or some other object referenced; accuracy declined to 72-78% correct with three objects present, but was still well above chance. Several lines of evidence suggested that the dolphin was attempting to remember which objects it had been shown, rather than conducting an active environmental search as in Experiment 2. The memory strategy became less efficient as the number of objects to be remembered increased. Overall, the results evidenced the language-trained dolphin's understanding of references to present or absent objects, its ability to inventory its environment to seek information about those objects, and its ability to report its obtained knowledge to others.

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