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Phoenix Forward

University grants $10,000 for dolphin research

University of Phoenix grants fund dolphin research

Dolphins and sea lions are known for their intelligence, but are they smart enough to understand that objects still exist even when they’re hidden?

That’s what Rebecca Singer, a psychologist who specializes in animal behavior and cognition, and an instructor in the psychology program at University of Phoenix, is trying to find out.

She recently began her second year of research on bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions, thanks to two grants totaling $10,000 from the University, the primary financial sponsor of her work.

The money is from a general research grant, one of three faculty research and scholarship programs funded through the University’s Office of Scholarship Support. Since the office opened in January, it has awarded about $100,000 for faculty research, according to Aaron Coe, associate dean of the School of Advanced Studies.

“The purpose of the research is to better understand these mammals and their capabilities,” says Singer, who has studied dolphins for 17 years. “If we understand what an animal can do, we can design better captive habitats and better understand how to protect them in the wild.”

Singer has spent several months in Nassau, Bahamas, at Dolphin Encounters, studying the creatures and logging hundreds of hours analyzing data. The marine park, which offers dolphin swims and other activities, is also an education and research facility.

If we understand what an animal can do, we can design better captive habitats and better understand how to protect them in the wild

Singer’s work focuses on whether dolphins and sea lions understand the concept of object permanence ­ that objects exist even when they can’t be seen.

She likens her experiments to playing peek-a-boo with babies: When adults hide their faces behind their hands and then suddenly open their hands, babies are entertained because they think the adults’ faces have magically reappeared. As they age, babies learn that when you hide an object, it’s not gone but just out of view, perhaps in a pocket.

Singer wants to determine whether marine mammals develop and behave similarly.

“Object permanence starts out as the ability to know that an object exists when it disappears,” she says, “and develops into the far more complicated task of tracking the hypothetical trajectory of a hidden object. You see where it disappears and make inferences to where it is likely to reappear.”

Singer began testing low-level object permanence in the mammals last year by hiding a bucket of fish behind a moveable screen. Based on their reactions, she says, the dolphins and sea lions successfully figured out that the fish bucket was still there even when obscured by the screen.

This year, she is studying high-level object permanence to see how the creatures react when objects are hidden in boxes — both on land and under water. She hypothesizes that dolphins will do well on the task under water, their natural habitat. Sea lions, she believes, will pass both tests because they are at home in water and on land.

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