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Inside the brains of dolphins

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'The Dolphin in the Mirror' by Diana Reiss
'The Dolphin in the Mirror' by Diana Reiss
Book cover courtesy of publisher

We're talking about an animal that looks like a fish but thinks like a primate: the dolphin.

Dolphins have big and complicated brains and scientists are learning more about what they do with them.  

Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist at Hunter College and expert on the behavior of dolphins and whales, joined The Daily Circuit to talk about the intelligence, self-awareness and extraordinary potential of dolphins.

Her latest book is "The Dolphin in the Mirror."

Reiss and her colleague put a mirror in front of a dolphin several years ago to find out how the animals respond. The dolphins were able to recognize themselves in the mirror, which is considered a rare cognitive ability for most animals.

"We're talking about a particular kind of self-awareness, the sense of you can recognize that you are in that mirror, that that's an external representation of yourself, Reiss told NPR. "That's pretty sophisticated when you think about it. And most animals don't do it."

Reiss described what the dolphins did while looking in the mirror in an interview with NPR:

"So what they do is they'll look inside their mouths, and they'll open their mouths really wide. Dolphins will often wiggle their tongues. And it's clear they're opening and holding and looking inside their mouths. They all put their eyes up against the mirror and look at their eyes very closely. So they may look at one eye and then turn and look at the other eye. They look at their genitals often. We didn't see this in elephants, but we certainly see this in humans, chimps and dolphins.

And again, they watch themselves doing different things in front of the mirror. When we look at children and they're playing in front of the mirror, you watch yourself doing that fancy new dance step, dolphins do all sorts of things like blowing varieties of bubbles, doing different kinds of play at the mirror."

VIDEO: Dolphins see themselves in the mirror