A kinematic study on (un)intentional imitation in bottlenose dolphins

Sartori L., Bulgheroni M., Tizzi R., & Castiello U. (2015). A kinematic study on (un)intentional imitation in bottlenose dolphins.  Frontiers in Human Neuroscience


The aim of the present study was to investigate the effect of observing other’s movements on subsequent performance in bottlenose dolphins. The imitative ability of non-human animals has intrigued a number of researchers. So far, however, studies in dolphins have been confined to intentional imitation concerned with the explicit request to imitate other agents. In the absence of instruction to imitate, do dolphins (un)intentionally replicate other’s movement features? To test this, dolphins were filmed while reaching and touching a stimulus before and after observing another dolphin (i.e., model) performing the same action. All videos were reviewed and segmented in order to extract the relevant movements. A marker was inserted post-hoc via software on the videos upon the anatomical landmark of interest (i.e. rostrum) and was tracked throughout the time course of the movement sequence. The movement was analyzed using an in-house software developed to perform two-dimensional (2D) post-hoc kinematic analysis. The results indicate that dolphins’ kinematics is sensitive to other’s movement features. Movements performed for the ‘visuomotor priming’ condition were characterized by a kinematic pattern similar to that performed by the observed dolphin (i.e., model). Addressing the issue of spontaneous imitation in bottlenose dolphins might allow ascertaining whether the potential or impulse to produce an imitative action is generated, not just when they intend to imitate, but whenever they watch another conspecific’s behavior. In closing, this will clarify whether motor representational capacity is a by-product of factors specific to humans or whether more general characteristics such as processes of associative learning prompted by high level of encephalization could help to explain the evolution of this ability.

Keywords: Imitation, mimicry, bottlenose dolphins, Mirror Neurons, Automatic Imitation, visuomotor priming.