Maxine Dolphin: Playing to Learn

Maxine Dolphin

Meet Tapeko and Maxine, the unlikely bottlenose dolphin duo that are solving problems together. Tapeko is a spry 36 year old female and is the matriarch of our pod here at Chicago Zoological Society – Brookfield Zoo. Maxine is a vivacious 3 year old and the youngest member of the group. Together, they are solving a dolphin version of a vending machine. Maxine searches weights that have been scattered around the habitat and drops them into the vending machine. Then Tapeko eats the fish that fall out! Although Tapeko sometimes assists with the weights, it is not exactly an even workload. Why does Maxine keep doing all of the work when she doesn’t get the fishy reward? With a full belly of fish from her trainers and an open milk bar from mom, she may be playing!

Play provides important opportunities for the cognitive and physical development of young dolphins. Just like in human children, play behaviors allow dolphin calves to practice locomotor skills, test out new behaviors, and explore objects. Maxine learned how to solve the dolphin vending machine by watching her human trainer drop weights in but that didn’t stop her from finding her own way add weights. Instead of simply dropping weights into the vending machine, Maxine often threw the weights in from far away (the three pointer) or set them on top and pushed them in (the slam dunk). Her good friend Tapeko was always standing by in case that was the game winning shot.

To keep it interesting and challenging for Maxine and Tapeko, we can change the “price” of the fish. For example, the fish could be released after one weight or after three. Changing when the fish are released always keeps Maxine on her toes (or flippers). Check out the video below to watch Tapeko and Maxine look to see if fish were released after Maxine tosses the weight in above the camera. When the fish are not released, Maxine is off to search for another weight to try again!


This vending machine is a form of environmental enrichment. Environmental enrichment is the addition of stimuli into the environment in order to increase species-specific behavior and provide opportunities for choice and control. Specifically, the vending machine is a cognitive enrichment device that provides Maxine with a species-specific, appropriate cognitive challenge. Part of what might keep Maxine engaged and playing with the vending machine is the challenge it provides. The reward isn’t released every time she adds a weight and she to figure out how many weights it will take. From farm animals to primates, other species also enjoy the tackling challenges. For example, sea otters sometimes ignore the food reward they earned by solving a puzzle and continue playing with the puzzle itself. Many animals will choose to work for food even when it is freely available (called contrafreeloading). In addition, animals often interact with challenging enrichment devices for longer periods of time than other types of enrichment and begin spending more time engaging in other play behaviors. 

Next time you visit Seven Seas, look out for Tapeko and Maxine (the largest and smallest dolphins) to see what games they are playing!

-Dr. Lisa Lauderdale


Posted: 1/30/2018 2:39:26 PM by Bryan Todd Oakley

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