People are still scrambling to get their hands on this year’s must-have gadget, the i Pad, but one lucky dolphin in Mexico is already a step ahead. Merlin, the 2-year-old bottlenose who resides at Dolphin Discovery’s swim facility in Puerto Aventuras, became the first of his kind to get face time – literally! – with Apple’s latest release.The dolphin has been learning to communicate and identify objects through visual cues on the iPad as part of a project led by dolphin research scientist Jack Kassewitz. Friendly and full of spirit, Merlin was the perfect pupil to test the device because “he’s fairly dominant … But he’s really playful. He likes to play,” says Kassewitz.
The Miami-based scientist, who’s studied language acquisition in dolphins for more than a decade, has worked with Merlin the past two years — ever since the dolphin planted himself in front of Kassewitz and his camera, vocalizing for more than 25 minutes. But until the iPad, Kassewitz was troubled that he could not understand what the dolphin was trying to say.
Now, by touching the screen with his rostrum (or beak), Merlin can get his point across. For one task, Merlin is charged with identifying the yellow duck within a set of pictures including a ball, flowerpot and hula-hoop. “He got proficient with that very quickly,” Kassewitz says.
As Merlin identifies the images, underwater microphones and sound programs on the iPad record his audio response. Still, there is one major kink – it’s not waterproof! So, the team wraps it in a bag for protection.
Kassewitz hopes that Merlin’s simple work with images and more intricate tasks he has planned for him can help crack the key to understanding the dolphins language — and ultimately be applied to research for brain injuries that affect humans, like strokes or dementia.”I really want to understand,” Kassewitz says, “how what I’m learning from these animals might apply to human problems and human challenges.”