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Imitative Dolphin

It is a rare animal that shows as much panache in its mimicry as a dolphin calf called Dolly did in the 1970s.

The tank in which she and three adult dolphins lived at the Port Elizabeth Oceanarium in South Africa had portholes through which the animals could be seen by the public, and vice versa.

The dolphins were trained to do a variety of tricks; but a lot of spontaneous imitation went on.

The adult male, Daan, copied the diver who came to clean these portholes by picking up a seagull feather in the tank and stroking the glass with it.

And Dolly, when she saw a man smoking on the other side of the glass, swam back to her mother, took a mouthful of milk, returned to the porthole and blew a cloud of milk towards the window, exactly replicating the cigarette smoke.

Pacific bottlenose pair leaping off the coast of Palaoa Point, Lanai, Hawaii.S(bottlenose dolphin)S(leaping)S(Lanai)S(AW)


It is not surprising that calves join in training exercises in captivity; they copy their mother’s feeding techniques closely in the wild. Even by the standards of dolphins, though, Dolly’s playful pseudo-puffing seems particularly impressive.

Such behaviour is hard to understand without imagining a mind that can appreciate what it sees and which intends to mimic the actions of others. That in turn implies things about the brain.

If you had to take a bet on things to be found in Dolly’s brain, you’d be well advised to put money on “mirror neurons”. Mirror neurons are nerve cells that fire when the sight of someone else’s action triggers a matched response—they seem to be what makes yawning contagious.

A lot of learning may require this way of linking perception to action—and it seems that, in people, so may some forms of empathy.


Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons are important to scientists attempting to find the basis of the way the human mind works, or at least to find correlates of that working, in the anatomy of human brains.

The fact that those anatomical correlates keep turning up in non-human brains, too, is one of the current reasons for seeing animals as also being things with minds.

There are mirror neurons; there are spindle cells which play a role in the expression of empathy and the processing of social information.

Chimpanzee brains have parts corresponding to areas which, in people, are associated with language and communication.


Brain Mapping

Brain mapping reveals that the neurological processes underlying what look like emotions in rats are similar to those behind what clearly are emotions in humans.

As a group of neuroscientists seeking to sum the field up put it in 2012:

“Humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures…also possess these neurological substrates.”

But to say that animals have a biological basis for consciousness is not the same as saying they actually think or feel. Here, ideas from the law may be more helpful than those from neurology.

When someone’s state of being is clearly impaired by a calamity of some sort, it can fall to the courts to decide what level of legal protection should apply. In such cases courts apply tests such as: is he or she self-aware? Can he recognise others as individuals? Can he regulate his own behaviour? Does he experience pleasure or suffer pain (that is, show emotion)?

Such questions reveal a lot about animals, too.



The most common test of self-awareness is the ability to recognise yourself in a mirror. It implies you are seeing yourself as an individual, separate from other beings.

The test was formally developed in 1970 by Gordon Gallup, an American psychologist, though its roots go back further; Darwin wrote about Jenny, an orang-utan, playing with a mirror and being “astonished beyond measure” by her reflection.

Dr Gallup daubed an odourless mark on the face of his subjects and waited to see how they would react when they saw their reflection. If they touched the mark, it would seem they realised the image in the mirror was their own, not that of another animal.

Most humans show this ability between the ages of one and two.

Dr Gallup showed that chimpanzees have it, too. Since then, orang-utans, gorillas, elephants, dolphins and magpies have shown the same ability. Monkeys do not; nor do dogs, perhaps because dogs recognise each other by smell, so the test provides them with no useful information.

images (1)

Recognising others

Recognising yourself is one thing; what of recognising others—not just as objects, but as things with purposes and desires like one’s own, but aimed at different ends. Some animals clearly pass this test too. Santino is a chimpanzee in Furuvik zoo in Sweden.

In the 2000s zookeepers noticed that he was gathering little stockpiles of stones and hiding them around his cage, even constructing covers for them, so that at a later time he would have something to throw at zoo visitors who annoyed him.

Mathias Osvath of Lund University argues that this behaviour showed various types of mental sophistication: Santino could remember a specific event in the past (being annoyed by visitors), prepare for an event in the future (throwing stones at them) and mentally construct a new situation (chasing the visitors away).

African elephant (Loxodonta africana) and calf walking, Masai Mara N.R, Kenya

Theory of Mind

Philosophers call the ability to recognise that others have different aims and desires a “theory of mind”. Chimpanzees have this. Santino seemed to have understood that zookeepers would stop him throwing stones if they could. He therefore hid the weapons and inhibited his aggression: he was calm when collecting the stones, though agitated when throwing them.

An understanding of the capabilities and interests of others also seems in evidence at the Centre for Great Apes, a sanctuary in Florida, where male chimpanzees living with Knuckles, a 16-year-old with cerebral palsy, do not subject him to their usual dominance displays.

Chimps also understand that they can manipulate the beliefs of others; they frequently deceive each other in competition for food.

Another test of legal personhood is the ability to experience pleasure or pain—to feel emotions. This has often been taken as evidence of full sentience, which is why Descartes’s followers thought animals were unable to feel, as well as reason.

elephants_Peter Knights


Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher and doyen of “animal rights”, argues that, of all the emotions, suffering is especially significant because, if animals share this human capacity, people should give consideration to animal suffering as they do to that of their own kind.

Animals obviously show emotions such as fear. But this can be taken to be instinctual, similar to what happens when people cry out in pain. Behaviourists had no trouble with fear, seeing it as a conditioned reflex that they knew full well how to create.

The real question is whether animals have feelings which involve some sort of mental experience.

This is not easy. No one knows precisely what other people mean when they talk about their emotions; knowing what dumb beasts mean is almost impossible.

That said, there are some revealing indications—most notably, evidence for what could be seen as compassion.

Click here to see the essay The Grieving Elephant for more information on animals emotions.

Grieving Elephant

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