Dolphin game-designers

Scientists who study animal behavior have long noted that intelligent species play games. But a couple of marine biologists have recently published a paper analyzing 317 games they observed in dophins — and arguing that the games are so complex they wouldn’t be out of place on an Xbox 360. Indeed, as World Science reports, young dolphins appear to deliberately design their games to be as hard as possible, perhaps because this makes them a good learning experience. Dig this one:

One calf became adept at “blowing bubbles while swimming upside-down near the bottom of the pool and then chasing and biting each bubble before it reached the surface,” the researchers continued. “She then began to release bubbles while swimming closer and closer to the surface, eventually being so close that she could not catch a single bubble.”

What’s more, the dolphin varied the number of bubbles it blew at different depths, apparently so that it could time things such that it would catch the last bubble just before it hit the surface. And it would also modify its swimming style — “one variation involving a fast spin-swim” — to make it harder to catch all the bubbles.

In another incident, the researchers watched some dolphins off the coast of Honduras passing a plastic bag back and forth in a game of catch. When the adults passed it to the young dolphins, they “they did so more carefully than to each other, releasing it just in front of the youth’s mouth, as if to make it easier to catch.”

(Thanks to Erik Weissengruber for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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