National Geographic : 2008 Mar
"A dolphin has this big, highly complex brain. My thought was, 'OK, let's see what you can do with it."' -LOUIS HERMAN dolphin would turn on its back and lift its tail in the air. Although imitation was once regarded as a simpleminded skill, in recent years cogni tive scientists have revealed that it's extremely difficult, requiring the imitator to form a men tal image of the other person's body and pose, then adjust his own body parts into the same position-actions that imply an awareness of one's self. "Here's Elele," Herman says, showing a film of her following a trainer's directions. "Surf board, dorsal fin, touch." Instantly Elele swam to the board and, leaning to one side, gently laid her dorsal fin on it, an untrained behavior. The trainer stretched her arms straight up, signaling "Hooray!" and Elele leaped into the air, squeak ing and clicking with delight. "Elele just loved to be right," Herman said. "And she loved inventing things. We made up a sign for 'create, which asked a dolphin to create its own behavior." Dolphins often synchronize their movements in the wild, such as leaping and diving side by side, but scientists don't know what signal they use to stay so tightly coordinated. Herman thought he might be able to tease out the tech nique with his pupils. In the film, Akeakamai and Phoenix are asked to create a trick and do it together. The two dolphins swim away from the side of the pool, circle together underwater for about ten seconds, then leap out of the wa ter, spinning clockwise on their long axis and squirting water from their mouths, every ma neuver done at the same instant. "None of this was trained," Herman says, "and it looks to us absolutely mysterious. We don't know how they do it-or did it." 60 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * MARCH 2008 He never will. Akeakamai and Phoenix and the two others died accidentally four years ago. Through these dolphins, he made some of the most extraordinary breakthroughs ever in un derstanding another species' mind-a species that even Herman describes as "alien," given its aquatic life and the fact that dolphins and primates diverged millions of years ago. "That kind of cognitive convergence suggests there must be some similar pressures selecting for intellect," Herman said. "We don't share their biology or ecology. That leaves social similari ties-the need to establish relationships and alliances superimposed on a lengthy period of maternal care and longevity-as the likely com mon driving force." "I loved our dolphins," Herman says, "as I'm sure you love your pets. But it was more than that, more than the love you have for a pet. The dolphins were our colleagues. That's the only word that fits. They were our partners in this research, guiding us into all the capabilities of their minds. When they died, it was like losing our children." Herman pulled a photograph from his file. In it, he is in the pool with Phoenix, who rests her head on his shoulder. He is smiling and reach ing back to embrace her. She is sleek and silvery with appealingly large eyes, and she looks to be smiling too, as dolphins always do. It's an image of love between two beings. In that pool, at least for that moment, there was clearly a meeting of the minds. 0 it Getting Into Their Heads Vince Musi introduces the animals he photographed and recounts the challenges he faced making their portraits, at ngm.com.