Dolphins in Captivity: What Do They Think?

In class we recently discussed the harmful effects of orca captivity on these animals’ psychological states. This led me to wonder how captivity may affect dolphins; another popular cetacean in captive settings. It is no secret that dolphins are highly intelligent animals, but what skills do they possess that suggest this intelligence and how might this intelligence indicate they may be emotionally or psychologically suffering in captivity? Lori Marino, a senior lecturer at Emory University, studies these exact issues in dolphins.

Marino conducted a study in 2000, which tested dolphins’ ability to recognize their selves in a mirror. Although this may seem like a simple task, prior to this study only humans and great apes had displayed this behavior. Humans don’t preform this behavior until 18-24 months of age, when other abstract concepts of the self start developing. The study included two captive-born dolphins. Their bodies were marked and then they were given the opportunity to observe themselves in a reflective surface. The dolphins indicated they were aware the mirror was a reflection of themselves by exploring the marked areas of their bodies in the reflections. If the dolphins were left unmarked, they did not show the same immediate interest in looking at themselves as when they had been marked. Although this behavior cannot conclusively determine if dolphins preform other self-awareness processes, such as introspection (analyzing their own thoughts and feelings) or awareness that other dolphins have their own thoughts and feelings, it is a good start. Marino has stated that the more self-aware dolphins are the more vulnerable they may be to captive life. She believes the more aware a dolphin is of his/her present and past circumstances, the more the dolphin can feel the difference between pleasant and unpleasant situations, thus leading to rumination about the negative consequences of the current situation.

Further evidence of dolphins’ capacities for emotion and complex mental processes comes from neurological research. MRI scans reveal that features of the dolphin neocortex are expanded. The neocortex is responsible for higher-level thinking and emotional processing. The dolphin brain is also four to five times larger for their body size compared to another animal of similar size. Taken together, this behavioral and neurological research suggests that dolphins may not be happy as captive animals. Their emotional and mental abilities may enable them to perceive living in such a small, enclosed, and empty area as negatively as you or I would. Efforts to ensure the welfare of dolphins in captive settings are imperative to make these settings enjoyable for them.


Works Cited:

“Dolphins: Second-Smartest Animals?” Discovery News. Web. 24 Feb 2015.

Reiss, D., & Marino. (2000). Mirror self-recognition in the bottlenose dolphin: A case of cognitive convergence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 98, 5937-5942.

2 thoughts on “Dolphins in Captivity: What Do They Think?

  1. This entry caught my eye because I am very interested in marine animals and conservation efforts. My friend who is studying to be a marine mammal vet also sent me an article about this same topic a while back, which is a very interesting read.


    When I usually think about animal captivity I think about human exploitation and disrespect for nature and how cruel it is to put these animals in a situation so different from their natural one. It was really interesting to read about scientific backing for why captivity is so bad. It is so interesting that dolphins are able to identify themselves in a mirror. I was unaware that previously this had been something only humans and apes were known to do. I hope that scientists are able to investigate other self-awareness behaviors of dolphins to add to their argument. It is horrible to think that animals with such complex, developed brains are forced to live in tiny tanks, with the purpose of entertaining humans. As humans we are ignoring the emotions and needs of these animals in order to satisfy ourselves. This entry provides compelling information that dolphins are most likely aware of how bad their situation is and suffering as a result. This makes me wonder if there are any similarities between he brain of a depressed or distressed human and that of a dolphin in captivity. It would also be interesting to look into the brain differences between recently captured dolphins, dolphins who have been living in captivity for a while, and dolphins who have always lived in captivity. Hopefully future studies like the one from this entry will compel people to release dolphins.
    -Hannah Piersiak


  2. This is a very interesting take on a rather old question and is especially relevant today with the various organizations looking into animal cruelty. Historically, treatment of animals and human beings were different justified abstract concepts like whether or not animals had souls. Nowadays, we can psychologically examine the perceptive capabilities of an animal to see if they should be treated more or less like human beings. The idea that self-awareness, memory, AND retrospection are required to even have negative feelings about your current state set a good groundwork for scientific criteria for what constitutes animal cruelty. Currently, advocates against “animal cruelty” in the agricultural and farming industry are working both an emotional and physical health component. This study, may help justify seemingly cruel practices like “factory farming”; chickens wouldn’t know the difference, as long as it doesn’t severely impact their health. And yet it also sheds light on animals that SHOULD be prioritized in “animal rights”, namely various intelligent species kept in zoos and performing circuses. Overall, evolutionary studies in brain function and capabilities, won’t just help us better understand animals (and ourselves of course), but also allow us to have a more educated debate on giving proper care to animals estranged from their natural environments.


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