(Editor’s note: Fourteen students accompanied Associate Professor of Biology Krista Ingram on an extended study trip to the Florida Keys during winter break to study marine mammal cognition, behavior, and conservation at the Dolphin Research Center. They chronicled their full experience on the off-campus learning blog — here’s a sample, written by Elly Hilton ’17, Madeleine Tsao ’17, and Lacey Williams ’16 on day two of their trip.)

We began the day as usual with a walk around the docks to each lagoon, waving and saying hello to each dolphin. We were still amazed to see the eagerness with which each dolphin approached us, seeming to recognize us from the day before. From the far side of every lagoon the dolphins would swim over to us as soon as they spied us walking down the docks, swimming the length of the dock and eyeing us with a curious sense of recognition and interest. After the rounds we headed over to the front lagoon to prepare for our second dolphin encounter.

Our group worked again with dolphins Merina and her daughter Windley. We all gave backrubs and handshakes, feeling the slippery skin of the dolphins slough off as our fingers ran down their charcoal hides. FUN FACT: dolphins regenerate their skin about every two hours, so feeling dolphin skin on our fingers after each touch was actually a normal phenomenon.

During our individual encounters we each got to help train the dolphins by practicing various imitation skills. Elly was instructed to practice bobbing with Merina, but Windley wanted to join in and practiced her bobbing, too. After imitation, we had the opportunity to actually swim with the dolphins! We hung onto the dorsal fins of both girls and were towed around the lagoon. It was a hilarious and wonderful experience with a combination of amazement that we were swimming with real dolphins while trying not to laugh from the constant belly bumps from their tails. Being a terrestrial species, however, we were always eager to sluice ourselves in freshwater showers following marine interactions.

After lunch we had three seminars about dolphin acoustics, DRC training methodology, and general marine mammal conservation. We even got to participate in a workshop to try and train each other. It was hilarious to watch our peers figure out that we were being instructed to whip and nay-nay or do the Macarena.

Here are Madeleine’s three favorite facts from the seminars:

Acoustics: Underwater, it’s easy for sounds to get mixed up. From a hydrophone, it’s often hard to distinguish clicks and whistles between the various dolphins within range. Therefore, in order for researchers to identify the source of a specific sound, underwater acoustics are recorded from at least three different positions underwater in order to triangulate the acoustics reception and identify the sound source by matching location of the hydrophone with strength of the target sound.

Training: There are many ways to teach (and discourage) behaviors in animals. At DRC, only one method is used for most all behavioral teaching: positive reinforcement, or the addition of a stimulus as a reward signal. The dolphins here have been conditioned to associate the sound of your basic whistle with praise. The dolphins therefore know when they’ve done a behavior correctly when the whistle is blown, and they know alterations are necessary in its absence. This is also cool since, unlike most household pets, these dolphins are not food motivated. Many of the individuals here won’t even accept food as adequate praise and will get bored without the occasional hugs and verbal applause. In addition to positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, or the removal of a stimulus as a reward signal, is used sparingly and most often in the context of medical assistance.

Conservation: Everyone knows that pollution is a major contributor to dwindling populations of dolphins (and others) in the wild. However, did you know that noise is a form of pollution as well? (Neither did most of us.) In fact, noise pollution is a huge concern for conservationists of marine mammals. Everyday man-made noises from sonar, off-shore drilling, cargo ships, and modern super tankers that seem relatively benign above water are amplified to underwater ears and may cause permanent damage to delicate auditory organs. Additionally, dolphins rely primarily on their sense of hearing for navigation and communication purposes. Therefore, sound pollution obstructs important signaling and creates directional confusion between and within pods.

After the seminars, we attended a training demo with Merina and Windley.

Above is a video of Merina showing her belly and below is another snippet of her beaching herself, both from our training demonstration, where the trainer was practicing certain behaviors for medical examinations.

This helps familiarize the dolphins with the equipment and behaviors in a fun, low-stress environment in order to prepare for any future serious illnesses and/or procedures.

Overall, it’s been an exciting start to the week, and we can’t wait to see what the rest of the trip has in store.