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Counting on Dolphins

By Gail Hennessey | January 24 , 2006

Talon leaping.
Talon leaping, which shows that he has incredible physical power as well as brain power. (Photo: Dolphin Research Center, Florida)
January 24, 2006

Talon and Rainbow are learning math, but they are not typical students. They are dolphins!

The math classes are part of a new study that shows dolphins may have cognitive, or thinking, abilities that allow them to understand math.

"Not much is known about the dolphin's ability to think mathematically," Emily Guarino told Scholastic News Online. Guarino is a research coordinator at the Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys.

Before Guarino and her team ran the study, researchers had to train the bottlenose dolphins to recognize the different number of dots on blackboards.

Once Talon and Rainbow learned what to do, they each took turns pointing their nose at the board with fewer white dots. Each time they were correct, positive reinforcement was given.

"A whistle is blown each time they do the right thing and they receive a fish. But more than fish is the enthusiasm and encouragement they receive when correct," Guarino said.

The research feels like a game to the dolphins, Guarino added. They love getting positive reinforcement like high fives, rubs, kisses, and even cheers.

In the study, a trainer sat in a booth wearing eyeglasses and a hat so that she wouldn't give any clues to the dolphins. Guarino then stood behind the screen selecting different boards.

The two dolphins picked the right board with the least amount of white dots about 80 percent of the time.

Guarino also said that this ability for dolphins to understand some math concepts might show that "humans and dolphins share something in common; our brains may work in the same ways."

About the Author

Gail Hennessey recently retired from teaching 6th grade social studies in Harpursville, New York. For more information and activity ideas, visit her Web site at

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