Kelly, the gull-baiting dolphin

Oct 28, 2013 by Incredo Solutions
Kelly, the gull-baiting dolphin

Hello! Today I wanted to tell you a remarkable story reported in the Guardian about a female dolphin called Kelly, who lives at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi.

Dolphins at the institute have been trained to keep their pool clean by collecting floating litter and passing it to a trainer. When dolphins turn in rubbish, they are rewarded with fish.

But Kelly has devised a novel way to make sure she is paid top rates for her litter collecting work. When Kelly finds a piece of rubbish in her pool, rather than take it straight to a trainer, she swims it down to the bottom and hides it underneath a rock. When a trainer passes by, she swims down to the rock, tears off a small piece and takes it to the trainer. Once she has been rewarded with a fish, Kelly swims down and rips off another small piece of paper and takes it straight back to the trainer for another fish!

And indeed, this is not Kelly’s only innovation. One day when a bird flew into Kelly’s pool, she collected it in her mouth and gave it to a trainer, for which she was rewarded with a generous serving of fish. The experience seems to have sparked an idea, as the next time Kelly was given a fish, she did not eat it as usual but took it to the bottom of her pool and hid it under the rock where she would normally hide pieces of rubbish. Later, when no trainers were present, Kelly brought the fish to the surface and used it to lure birds overhead, which she grabbed and delivered to a trainer in return for another generous serve of fish. Having proven to be highly profitable, Kelly taught her bird baiting strategy to her calf, who in turn taught the other calves in the pool.

It’s interesting to think about what this says regarding Kelly’s ability to plan ahead, and to understand complex notions, for instance that she is rewarded for turning in a piece of paper, not for turning in a piece of paper of a particular size.

If you’re interested, you can check out some fascinating footage and read more on the latest research into cetacean intelligence at
AFD’s Dolphin Intelligence page.