Date of Award

Spring 2018

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Dr. Diana Reiss

Second Advisor

Dr. Joshua Plotnik

Academic Program Adviser

Dr. Diana Reiss


In the 1970s through the 1990s, artificial languages and codes were being used as a window into understanding different species’ cognitive abilities and to afford them choice and control in captive environments. In a study by Reiss and McCowan (1993), two young captive born male bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and their mothers were given an underwater interactive system that afforded them some degree of choice and control in obtaining specific contingencies. The dolphins’ use of specific visual elements presented via on a 3 x 3 key matrix resulted in the production of computer generated whistles followed by the delivery of objects and activities. The analysis of the original study focused on vocal learning, spontaneous vocal mimicry and productive use of novel sounds by the two young dolphins. The dolphins’ use of the keyboard and concurrent behavior was examined and described in relationship to their acoustic behavior but not quantified further. The goal of the current study was to revisit the data from Reiss and McCowan (1993) and to quantify and describe the dolphins’ keyboard use and behavior during experimental sessions, as well as other aspects of learning. The two young dolphins showed a change in keyboard use over time, with both ultimately tracking preferred keys. Keyboard use and the dolphins’ behavior reveal a correspondence with the acoustic findings of the original publication. Overall, the results suggest the co-development of the dolphins’ acoustic learning, keyboard usage, and overall behavior.



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