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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Can Dolphins Plan their Behavior?


The ability to plan one’s behavior in novel and appropriate ways when confronted with new problemshas been found in members of relatively few species. This ability provides significant evolutionaryadvantages in that the planner can mentally assess possible solutions prior to implementing one ofthem, and so need not risk life and limb by muddling though possible solutions to problems via trialand error learning. Although there are instances of wild dolphin behavior that suggest planning, it isdifficult to determine if such behaviors were the result of planning, trial and error learning, or evensome form of serendipitous discovery. Investigations of problem solving in bottlenose dolphins livingin zoological settings can better assess the actual causes of apparent planning, and such controlledstudies have demonstrated that dolphins can plan their behaviors in novel contexts. These settingsfacilitate the assessment of processes that underlie behaviors of interest, while observations from thewild provide invaluable information about apparent planning behavior in various contexts.Integrating findings from both settings is necessary if we hope to fully understand the dolphincapacity for planning.

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