Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Curiosity: Dolphins, Chimpanzees, and the New School Year

September 3, 2010

This week a friend in Florida sent me a video clip about dolphins that I’ve watched with delight multiple times now. It’s been around a while—so much for thinking I keep on top of all the breaking animal-behavior news!!—but even if you’ve seen it before, it’s worth another look.

The clip features bottle-nose dolphins at Sea World Orlando blowing air rings from their blowholes. In an internet article about this behavior, I found this information:

Keepers of the bottle-nose dolphins say the behavior comes naturally to the animals, whose wild counterparts also blow bubbles.

“The blowhole is their nose and all they are doing is exhaling air through it under water and the bubble they create goes up to the surface and expands creating a ring.”

Alright, that sounds a bit tame, doesn’t it? But here’s my mini-viewing guide to explain why I find the filmed behavior so fascinating. When you watch, look for:

*The level of skill required to blow and then control a perfect circle: the blowing may come naturally, but these dolphins manipulate the rings with precision.

*The social nature of the activity: dolphins attend to one another’s ring-blowing. Either the behavior itself is learned by observation or the idea to try out ring-blowing is shared socially (or maybe both).

*The curiosity and playfulness inherent in this shared behavior: There’s no obvious utilitarian function to this ring-blowing. But then again, why should we expect there to be? Lots of animals are keenly curious about what others are doing, and may take up an observed behavior out of sheer joy in play.

Here is the film clip:

The more I watch it, the more I see. The brief sequence right around 2 minutes 32 seconds, for example, is intriguing because one dolphin engaged in ring-spinning is keenly watched by another.

Now, in a taxonomic jump, here’s a bonus video clip: no ring-blowing here, but a record of intense curiosity and intelligent probing behavior shown by a wild chimpanzee in the Congo. Notice especially the youngster’s inspired use of a termite-catching tool, and the fact that her mother becomes attracted to the camera as well as a result of the youngster’s curiosity:

Watching these two clips during the start-up of the academic year at William & Mary has caused me to think about the evolutionary continuity of playfulness and curiosity. When students file into my classes in biological anthropology, I observe (in the great majority of them) an intense drive to learn what I have to teach them, and to learn as well from fellow students. Taking college classes isn’t play exactly, but for many W&M students, it is fun of a certain kind.

As the academic year begins, then, I hope in my classes the students and I will build on our evolutionary legacy of social learning, curiosity, and even playfulness as we explore facets of our own species’ prehistory.


  1. September 3, 2010 2:34 PM EDT
    Wow! If the bubble-blowing by the dolphins is a learned behavior, I'd love to see how teaching of the behavior occurs - doesn't seem like it would be something that could just be taught like termite fishing. Just watching the dolphins play with and spin the bubbles was great!
    And the chimp video was great to watch as well!
    - Jen
  2. September 3, 2010 4:08 PM EDT
    I was woondering if it could be more like social facilitation (instead of imitation or other outright observational learning), where one dolphin sees another doing this, but then figures the rest out her/himself. It surprises me that this hasn't been videotaped/studied yet, along the lines of what Eliz. Lonsdorf did in Animal Behaviour for chimpanzee termite-fishing.
    - Barbara J. King
  3. September 4, 2010 2:37 PM EDT
    And what does one say about cooperative hunting? There has to be communication and "theory of mind" going on there. We used to have two dogs who tag-teamed moles. One would dig them out and the other would grab them when they made a break for it.
    - Marian Allen
  4. September 4, 2010 6:46 PM EDT
    Hi Marian! Yes, cooperative hunting is a salient point and when truly cooperative it is likely to involve theory of mind. Question: would the two dogs share the food (mole) when the hunt was over? Thanks for making that point and happy book tour to you!
    - Barbara J. King
  5. September 4, 2010 9:40 PM EDT
    I'll be honest--I'm not scientific enough to have watched. They didn't fight, though, so I'm guessing they shared.

    Here's another true story: We got two wander-ups at the same time. We got leashes and collars for them, and our youngest daughter would walk them up and down the 1000-foot driveway (we live in the woods). One day, she dropped one dog's leash. The other dog picked up the end, and Sara walked one dog while that dog walked the other one. lol!
    - Marian Allen
  6. October 13, 2010 11:34 AM EDT
    I want to see also how the dolphins learned the bubble-blowing behavior. I am so interested to know it.
    - whitney01

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.