Dolphin Imitation: Who, What, When, and Why?

Abstract: The imitative ability of nonhuman animals has intrigued a number of scholars and, in doing so, has generated a considerable amount of controversy. Although it is clear that many species can learn via observational learning, there is a lack of consensus concerning both what sorts of things can be learned by watching others and what types of observational learning should count as imitation. These disputes have led to disagreements about the extent to which various nonhuman species engage in imitation, based in large part on different definitions of imitation. An animal’s imitative success also depends on the context. For example, dolphins can be taught to imitate on demand, and studies using such elicited imitation tasks have yielded mixed results. Dolphins can imitate behaviors produced by other dolphins and other animals (including humans) and are capable of deferred imitation. When dolphins are asked to imitate, it seems easier for them to reproduce familiar behaviors than novel ones. Adult dolphins appear to be more successful than juveniles at imitating on demand; however, young dolphins appear more likely than adults to spontaneously imitate behaviors. Young dolphins frequently spontaneously imitate the play behaviors of their peers, and sometimes acquire novel play behaviors in the process. Following Kuczaj et al. (2005), we suggest that the distinction between elicited and spontaneous imitation is important, and that understanding both types of imitation is essential. In addition to learning more about the factors that are influential when animals imitate, it is also imperative to understand the types of models and behaviors that are most likely to be imitated, the types of animals that are most likely to imitate others, and ontogenetic changes that occur in imitation.


Document Type: Research article

DOI: 10.1578/AM.32.4.2006.413

Page Numbers: 413 – 422

$12.00Add to cart