Can Dolphin Cognition Impact Marine Mammal Conservation?
August 31, 2020
By Dana Adcock (Environmental Science and Policy ’22)
Since starting as an undergraduate student at Duke, I always wanted to get involved in research, but I had trouble figuring out where to start. Approaching professors about research opportunities felt intimidating without personal connections or years of experience. Bass Connections provided a perfect avenue for getting involved with research.
As a student interested in marine conservation, I knew that I wanted to get involved with a project related to the environment. A 2019-2020 Bass Connections project about how dolphins solve cognitive problems – and how our perception of dolphin intelligence shapes our attitudes toward their conservation – immediately caught my eye. Dr. Hare and Dr. Woods, who I knew because of Duke Puppy Kindergarten and the Canine Cognition Center, were both listed as heads of the project. I thought this project would be a good fit for my interests and help me grow.
At the start of the project, our team met regularly to discuss background research and experimental design. I found relevant research papers that provided information on dolphin cognition, behavior, physiology and relevant methodology. The most difficult part of this research was trying to find examples of studies that measured actual behavioral changes, rather than survey questions or “planned” changes, after the subjects interacted with a conservation presentation or experience. Dr. Hare and Ph.D. student Hannah Salomons would ask the undergraduates questions and prompt us to think deeply and realistically about our research questions. I also attended weekly lab meetings where I learned about ongoing research projects in the Hare lab.
Over spring break (right before classes went online), Hannah Salomons, Sam Lee and I had the pleasure of visiting the Dolphin Research Center (DRC) in Florida to conduct our research. Everyone who worked there made us feel incredibly welcome. Working with a community partner encouraged us to work collaboratively and learn how to navigate projects with multiple stakeholders.
Each morning and afternoon, we hosted a presentation for a group of visitors about dolphin fun facts and either highlighted similarities or differences between humans and dolphins in terms of cognition, behavior and physiology. Afterward, for the second part of the experiment, we would have adults voluntarily stay and sit in silence to raise money for the DRC. The more time that the visitors were willing to wait, the more money we donated to the DRC. This provided data for immediate, measurable behavioral changes. At times, it was difficult to predict how many people would attend each session and ensure that everyone in the session understood and followed the rules of the experiment. I learned that research with people can be more difficult to predict and control.
Being a part of this Bass Connections project was a valuable learning experience for me. I discovered that I enjoy conducting research and may want to pursue it as a career path. I enjoy the creativity and problem solving involved. It even inspired me to continue research with marine mammals. Currently, I am working on an independent study project involving marine mammals in Andy Read’s lab.
I highly recommend Bass Connections for those interested in learning the ins and outs of academic research or for those just looking to explore their passions. I even got to swim with dolphins!