With my extensive experience in animal behavior (I’ve raised many cats and taken a senior level course in animal behavior) I have some insights into this phenomenon.
It’s freaking awesome. Video after the break.
OK, let’s look at what is happening here. The dolphins are executing a novel behavior and more than just doing a behavior, they are engaging with their own creation. They are playing with and manipulating the bubble rings. It even looks like a couple of the dolphins are just intensely studying the bubble rings.
Take a look at how the dolphins interact with each other and the bubble rings. It’s almost as if they don’t want another dolphin playing with ‘their’ ring. These are the basic emotions that are related to concepts like ownership, jealousy, and mine.
We know that large cetaceans will gather in a group and use air bubbles to herd fish into a very tight ‘baitball’ which the whales will swim through with their mouths open collecting huge volumes of food. But that behavior is just blowing air at a specific time and herding fish. I’ll admit that it is very calculated and anyone who says that whales aren’t very smart will get an ear full from me.
But this dolphin behavior is utterly fascinating. I remember doing similar things in the bathtub when I was little. Some soap and straw could keep me in the tub for hours.
What’s even better is that there has been a peer-reviewed article discussing the cognitive implications for this activity.
Whereas the physics of ring formation is straightforward (Lunggren & Mansour, 1991), the actual production of stable rings may require some practice, expertise, and forethought by the dolphins.
Note in the video that many of the bubble rings are not simply going upwards, but are being actively directed by the dolphins. Also note how the dolphins manipulate the rings to create smaller rings, ring pairs and complex shapes.
He [Reiss (1998)] suggested that the dolphins’ characteristic spatial positioning [which can be seen in the video] prior to bubble ring production provides suggestive evidence of “anticipatory behavior, an awareness of the contingencies of their past actions, and an awareness of the contingencies of future acts” (Reiss, 1998, p.557).
I would be willing to submit that this behavior has all the hallmarks of the scientific method. Observation (another dolphin producing a bubble ring), research (how can I produce one), hypothesis (if I hold my body like that dolphin did can I produce a bubble ring), experiment (move body like so, exhale), repeat (exhale differently, move locations, etc.), analysis (did I produce a stable bubble ring), conclusion (yes/no).
The paper describes how dolphins can combine two smaller rings into one, split one ring into smaller rings, change the direction of movement of the rings, and additional manipulative behaviors.
The paper goes on to describe a long series of observations* about the types of rings, the activity around the dolphins (social or solitaire), the interaction of the dolphins and the rings, etc.
In conclusion, the present findings suggest that dolphins anticipate their actions and monitor the outcome of their behavior during bubble ring production.
The paper stresses the need for additional research into the behaviors and states that the behaviors are based on associative learning or an actual cognitive understanding of the physical events. Still some evidence for learning in bubble ring production does exist.
* Which is typical of animal behavior studies. I do not want to remember the three weeks we spent all of our spare time watching ducks in a local pond. For five minutes record every behavior you see the duck you are tracking perform. Rest for two minutes, repeat… for 5 hours a day (or until the birds flew away). I watched so much duck sex, I started to feel like a voyeur… “Hey Jim, Blacky and Sally are going at it again.” “Geez, man, I didn’t think ducks ate oysters, but he must be doing something.”
McCowan, B., Marino, L., Vance, E., Walke, L., & Reiss, D. (2000). Bubble ring play of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus): Implications for cognition. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 114 (1), 98-106 DOI: 10.1037/0735-7036.114.1.98