Smarter Than You Think: Bubble Ring Play of Dolphins

Recent studies suggest that dolphins and porpoises (belonging to the mammalian order of Cetacea) are amongst one of the most intelligent animals around[1], possibly coming in just behind us humans. Lori Marino, one of the world’s leading dolphin experts observed MRI scans carried out on Dolphins recently and have found an impressive brain-to-body ratio. She also observed that the dolphins have an especially large neocortex – the part of the brain used for higher-order thinking and for processing emotional information.[2] This finding is not peculiar and supports existing scholarship that have found dolphins to exhibit human-like skills such as self-recognition, the use of dolphin language, manipulation of tools, etc.

Dolphin @ Play

Dolphin @ Play (via chris-lh)

Perhaps, one of the most fascinating would be the phenomenon of bubble ring play of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Recently, this behaviour has fascinated many around the world as they exhibit the intelligent, amazing and playful nature of dolphins. They would blow a round ring of air through their blowholes and then play with it by pushing it around and swimming through it.

“For long seconds the dolphin regards its creation, from varying aspects and angles, with its vision and sonar. Seemingly making a judgment, the dolphin then quickly pulls a small silver doughnut from the larger structure, which collapses into small bubbles. She then ‘pushes’ the doughnut, which stays just inches ahead of her rostrum, perhaps 20 feet over a period of up to 10 seconds. Then, stopping again, she regards the twisting ring for a last time and bites it–causing it to collapse into a thousand tiny bubbles which head–as they should–for the water’s surface. After a few moments of reflection, she creates another.” [3](Don White, Creator of Project Delphis)

Dolphin Bubbles: An Amazing Behaviour (via SeaWorld Orlando Dolphin Cove)

As seen in the video, the dolphins would observe one another  and subsequently imitate and even improvise their bubble rings. Young dolphins are also observed to have learnt this behaviour from their mothers.[4] Although social learning amongst animals is not uncommon, it appears that dolphins are especially observant animals and seem to catch on behaviour and playful antics quickly, especially when they appear to be entertaining. As suggested by another study, although bottlenose dolphins create and manipulate these underwater bubble rings for play, they actually intentionally monitor the quality of their bubble rings and anticipate their actions during bubble ring play.[5] Suffice to say, dolphins are pretty serious about their play.

This discovery further affirms the fact that dolphins are much more intelligent than we think and they are not indifferent to their surroundings and circumstances. It is important we recognize that as “the scientific evidence on dolphin sensitivities reveals that they are vulnerable to trauma and suffering when forced to live in the confined context of marine parks,” Marino said. However, the paradox of discovery is that it breeds fascination, hence creating a demand. This may potentially lead to more dolphins being captured and held captive. At this point, it is important to also emphasize the importance of protecting dolphins from further human harm.

[1] Into the brains of whales Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 100, Issues 1-2, October 2006, Pages 103-116 Mark Peter Simmonds

[2] Viegas, J. (2010, January 22). Dolphins: Second-Smartest Animals? Retrieved from (accessed on 9 Apr 2010)

[3] White, D. (n.d.). Mystery of the Silver Rings. Retrieved from (accessed on 9 Apr 2010)

[4] Mercado III, E., Murray, S.O., Uyeyama, R.K., Pack, A.A., Herman, L.M., 1998. Memory for recent actions in the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus): repetition of arbitrary behaviours using an abstract rule. Anim. Learn. Behav.26 (2), 210–218.

[5] Bubble ring play of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus): Implications for cognition. McCowan, Brenda; Marino, Lori; Vance, Erik; Walke, Leah; Reiss, Diana Journal of Comparative Psychology. Vol 114(1), Mar 2000, 98-106. doi: 10.1037/0735-7036.114.1.98