Bottlenose Dolphins Produce Underwater Bubbles Linked to Cognitive Task Engagement but Not Success

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Elena Alexander, Mark Abrahams, Fay E Clark
Journal of Zoological and Botanical Gardens
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Captive mammals respond emotionally toward cognitive challenges, but research has precluded marine mammals. A potential indicator of emotion in toothed cetaceans is a large singular bubble (‘burst’) emitted from the blowhole, previously linked to surprise and excitement. Our study analysed bursts from a published study on dolphin cognitive enrichment. Bursts were only produced by task-engaged (72%) or task-spectating (28%) dolphins (n = 6 males in total). Burst frequency increased with the proportion of task engagement and spectator frequency, but not task progress or success (providing no evidence for an instantaneous ‘Eureka moment’). Bursts were reduced in frequency over three weeks, consistent with a decrease in task-engagement. Bursts were significantly more likely to come at the start of a bout of task-engagement than in the middle or end. We suggest bursts were an emotional response signaling dolphins’ instantaneous judgement of the task, more likely related to positive affect (interest, curiosity) than negative affect (frustration). They appear unrelated to respiration. It was unclear whether bursts were produced consciously and had a social function. We call for further dedicated research on the emotional valence of cetacean bursts. This will require simultaneous behavioural and acoustic measurements under different levels of more controlled challenge.


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