Update: Dolphin Mirror Study

Published January 13, 2015

Recently, we introduced our eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins to an exciting enrichment device they do not often see—their own reflections!

Enrichment focuses on natural behaviors, such as play, foraging, socialization and problem solving. This was the first time our dolphins had seen the mirror since part of an ongoing self-recognition study, so when we brought it down to the exhibit glass for them to see, we got quite the reaction! Visitors in the exhibit got to watch first-hand as all six of the females displayed interesting behaviors, such as open mouthing, bubble bursting, vocalizing and posturing, all directed toward the dolphins in the mirror.

Dolphins looking into a mirror

But how does a dolphin know the reflection is its own and not another dolphin? As for our enrichment sessions, there’s no guarantee the dolphins were exhibiting self-recognition, but scientists in the ‘90s were able to determine when a dolphin was recognizing its own reflection by some of the specific behaviors it would exhibit. The animal would roll around in front of the mirror, blowing bubbles and wiggling its fins, as if inspecting itself; when it moved a fin, its reflection’s fin moved too!

By closely observing these activities over a long period of time, scientists determined that many of the behaviors could be attributed to the dolphin recognizing itself, rather than observing and interacting with another dolphin.

Dolphins looking into a mirror

We learned a lot from our mirror study and continue to work with researchers who are studying everything from blowholes to tail flukes! You can learn more about the research we’re doing and watch dolphin enrichment sessions like this one on your next visit to Dolphin Discovery at the National Aquarium!

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