As One Dolphin Preens for Television, Another Dies

A dolphin. Nova's three-part special, "Inside Animal Minds," explores the way dolphins, as well as other animals such as elephants and chimpanzees, communicate, solve problems and go through their daily lives. Source: WGBH via Bloomberg

April 11 (Bloomberg) -- A dolphin opens wide to check her teeth in a mirror and then swirls around studying her silhouette. Too much time at the fish buffet? I feel pretty?

What was she thinking? And what should we think about her thinking?

Nova’s new three-part special, “Inside Animal Minds,” explores the way dolphins, elephants, chimpanzees, dogs and birds communicate, solve problems and go through their daily lives (which would be less stressful if we were already extinct).

“Bird Genius,” which aired on April 9, now streams on the PBS website. “Dogs and Super Senses” airs on April 16 with “Who’s the Smartest?” set for April 23.

Until early humans came along, dolphins had the most powerful brains on the planet. Even as they slimmed down, their brains only got bigger. How come and what for?

Nova goes to Bimini in the Bahamas where researchers study dolphin society in the wild doing amazing things -- which do not involve balancing volleyballs and spinning hula hoops around their blow holes.

I Feel Stupid

(Nova could definitely take a sterner attitude to theme parks that turn captive dolphins into clowns who perform stupid tricks in front of dim humans and their squealing offspring. By the way, kids under the age of two aren’t developed enough to recognize themselves in a mirror, Nova tells us.)

Those Bimini dolphins form close and complex bonds. We observe one male tapping the pectoral fin of a buddy as he whizzes by. Friendships might last a lifetime. Should that really surprise us just because we think one dolphin looks a lot like the next?

A female spends as long as three years with her calf. The Bimini researchers noticed a designated female baby sitter who over a period of ten years regularly approached the boat with three calves while the other moms went off to feed.

In one of many wondrous scenes, we see a dolphin stirring up the water while others wait in formation for little fish to plop into their mouths.

Japanese Butcher

Such types of social activity require sizable brains to organize interactions. A variety of echolocating clicks and whistles helps them stay in touch.

They don’t want to speak English and even if they did, don’t have the equipment.

Vintage footage takes us back to the late 1950s, when the neuroscientist John C. Lilly engaged in a famous, creepily amusing experiment which involved research assistant Margaret and a dolphin named Peter who lived together in a partially submerged house for several months. We hear his squeaky attempts at counting. Further reading about their strange menage suggests that Peter developed an interest in his teacher if not his lessons.

Hopefully Nova will take up interspecies romance at a later date.

In the meantime, these sentient creatures continue to suffer cruel deaths. This week the Dolphin Project placed an ad in the New York Times describing the plight of a rare albino dolphin named Angel. In January she watched while Japanese fishermen butchered her mother and dozens of others in a cove in Taiji.

Now Angel is held captive in a small tank in the town’s whale museum. Go to and help get her out of jail.

Major funding for Nova is provided by Boeing, The David H. Koch Fund for Science, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Brecher at Frederik Balfour, Lili Rosboch