- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Having fun involves a variety of sensory experiences that often help hone other skills needed for mammals to survive and thrive.

Since April, the National Aquarium in Baltimore has demonstrated this during its live dolphin show, “Play!” which explores the relationship between learning and fooling around while giving audiences a look into the relationships developed between marine biologists and their bottlenose buddies.

The 30-minute multimedia performance, offered three to seven times a day depending on the number of visitors at the aquarium, features a variety of movements performed by the dolphins that coincide with things they might do in the wild.

“The behaviors the dolphins exhibit, such as porpoising when the animal jumps out of the water while swimming, are natural,” says Sue Hunter, manager of animal programs at the aquarium.

Audiences learn that “porpoising” allows the air-breathing dolphins to come to the surface to breathe without stopping their travel. It also may be a way to avoid predators that lose sight of them as they leave the water.

Miss Hunter further adds, “The trick is to train them to do it on cue, allowing the trainer to share information, or educate, the audience about these animals and allow them to see the animal as it leaves the water.”

So how does one coax a 300-pound animal to do what you want it to do on command? The answer lies in the theory of operant behavior, along with a lot of respect and trust between dolphin and trainer.

“The most familiar application of operant behavior is Pavlov’s dog,” Miss Hunter says. “With the dolphins, we use a variety of rewards in order to get them to perform a behavior on cue, when they need to do it, so that [we] can educate the audience or [to] allow us as caretakers to provide care for the dolphins.”

Another behavior to bring accolades from the audience is a vertical spin, in which the dolphin jumps straight up out of the water and spins before smacking back down.

Anyone watching this behavior may guess that the best reason for a dolphin to do such a thing would be for the pure fun of it, but it actually may be defensive behavior.

“This might be a way to warn other dolphins of danger as they come down on the water, creating a loud smack that other dolphins can surely hear, or it may be just to scratch an itch they have on their backs, or it may just be for the fun of it,” Miss Hunter says.

“However, it is probably a combination of all those things. Some species of dolphins, such as the spinner dolphin, spin more often than others, making us believe it may be a form of social play, but we don’t really know why.”

From a scientific point of view, “Play!” shows how understanding the behaviors of dolphins takes researchers to both controlled and wild environments.

This is demonstrated by snagging the ever-present “audience volunteer” during every performance. Only this time, the human is not there to just wave a hand or toss a fish. Using a bit of big-screen technology and computer graphics, that friendly volunteer quickly becomes part of an animated presentation that explores the world of the trainer of marine mammals.

As the show humorously reveals, the job has its share of work, from cleaning the dolphin habitats to finding new ways to encourage and teach the animals, along with requiring a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in biology or animal psychology.

A stop by the National Aquarium’s Web site (www.aqua.org /play/index.html) provides surfers with a great pre-visit experience to learn more about “Play!” the stars that perform and even a chance to take part in a virtual training session featuring video clips of the dolphins in action.

Admission to “Play!” is included in the aquarium’s ticket price ($17.50 for adults, $9.50 for children 3 to 11, $14.50 for adults 60 and older, children younger than 3 admitted free). For more information about dolphin show times and to buy tickets for the aquarium, call 410/576-3800 or visit the aquarium’s Web site (www.aqua.org).

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