Diana Reiss

[Scientist, Animal Cognition and Communication]

“Even though they look like a fish, more like a fish than like us, there is this warm-eyed mammal, this eye-to-eye contact. There’s somebody in there.”
When you’re absorbed in the rhythm of dolphins:
You sort of become one of them
You’re entranced
You’re in a nonverbal mode

Dolphins—like humans, great apes, and elephants, among other creatures—are self-aware. This was first proven by animal-cognition researcher Diana Reiss, who gave dolphins the mirror self-recognition test, in which researchers place a mark on an animal where the animal can’t see it—above a dolphin’s eye, for example—then watch how the animal reacts in front of a mirror. Dolphins passed the test with flying colors. Also, they loved using the mirror to look at their own genitals, which are positioned in a place they can’t normally see. (Reiss has some great video footage of this.)

In another groundbreaking study, Reiss designed an underwater keyboard composed of nine blank keys that could be fitted with simple white symbols. When a dolphin pressed a key, the animal would hear a synthesized whistle, then get the treat associated with the symbol: a ball, a fish, a rub on the belly. Remarkably, the dolphins not only pressed the symbols for items they preferred, they quickly learned to imitate the whistles and incorporated them into their communication with each other. Reiss is still trying to figure out what they’re saying.

A professor of psychology at Hunter College in the graduate program of Biopsychology and Behavioral Neuroscience, Reiss was a scientific adviser on the Academy Award–winning documentary The Cove and is the author of The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives.

When I arrived at her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, she was on the phone, frantically arranging for the rescue of a massive black Newfoundland, who would arrive (drooling heavily) on her doorstep just a few days later. She apologized profusely for the delay as we settled onto the plush white couches in her living room. As we talked, her giant black cat sashayed between us, its bushy tail tickling our noses.

—Meehan Crist


THE BELIEVER: What is the most surprising thing you’ve ever seen a dolphin do, something that totally changed the way you think about dolphin minds?

DIANA REISS: I think I’m going to go with three things, and they’re of a very different nature. Once I was watching two mothers, two females that I worked with. One had given birth, and forty-eight hours later the other female, Circe, was ready to give birth. I had been studying their vocal behavior, watching them and recording data, and I was already trying to understand their kind of communication. So Circe was in labor and she was younger and she didn’t know what to do. Terry, the other mother, was watching this whole thing very vigilantly with her own calf. What really amazed me was, as soon as Circe gave birth, Terry suddenly pushed the father, who was still in the pool, up against the wall right under my feet. She had her calf pushed up against the father right below me. I saw Terry turn her head right to where Circe was, and she did this very complex whistle, and Circe made a beeline for her own calf. [As described in Reiss’s book, the newborn calf had been struggling, flailing down toward the bottom of the pool.] At that point, Circe just followed everything Terry had done when her own calf was born. [Newborn dolphins need to be pushed up to the surface by their mothers so they can breathe—so they don’t drown.] It was about as clear a case of communication and intent as I ever saw.

That was one of those “wow” moments, because even though I didn’t have that magical decoder ring to decipher Terry’s whistle, it was clear to me that these animals were doing something. It was communicative, it was very intentional, and it made me feel like, Yes, there’s really something here. We have no idea what that whistle was about. I rushed in to analyze it on my equipment, and it had Terry’s initial—her own contact call—in the beginning, and then it was almost like a very frequency-modulated, long sequence that was one continuous sound. I thought, What is this all about? And I had no clue.

Now, years before, I had been in a research lab in France, where I did part of my doctoral work. I got a grant from the French government, so I was there for close to two years working with this expert in what’s called bioacoustics, which is how animals—even humans—produce sounds and music. Did you know there are whistle languages in the world?

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Meehan Crist is writer-in-residence in biological sciences at Columbia University. Previously, she was reviews editor at the Believer, and her work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Lapham’s Quarterly, the New Republic, and Scientific American.

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