Professor, dolphin research featured in National Geographic

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - This is a news release from The University of Southern Mississippi.

He doesn't claim the moniker "dolphin whisperer," but Dr. Stan Kuczaj's expertise on the popular marine mammal has earned him international recognition for his study of the species' cognitive and communicative abilities, including in a recent edition ofNational Geographic.

In the publication's May 2015 issue article titled "Thinking Like A Dolphin: Understanding One of the Smartest Creatures on Earth," Kuczaj shared insights that he, his students and other colleagues have gained through decades of collaborative research on dolphins.

The article examines the wide variety of behaviors dolphins engage in, describing them as "a kind of alien intelligence sharing our planet," likening them to "E.T.," the creature featured in the 1982 science fiction movie by the same name. The article further notes the marine mammal's use of "signature whistles" to identify other dolphins: "No other animal, besides humans, is believed to have specific labels for individuals."

And as the article notes how humans and dolphins both have large, complicated brains, the question is broached: Do we consider dolphins to be a creature of higher intelligence based on our own ideas about human intelligence? Kuczaj's response: "The question is not how smart are dolphins, but how are dolphins smart?"

Although it is not clear that dolphins have a language, researchers like Kuczaj believe studying dolphin communication warrants more time, resources and the appropriate tools to examine their use of sounds and other signals as a mode of communication. "If we can find a pattern connecting vocalization to behavior, it'll be a huge deal," Kuczaj said.

Kuczaj and a team of graduate and undergraduate students are also looking at dolphin communication during cooperation, their social use of tactile behaviors, the interaction of personality and styles in problem-solving scenarios, and are even examining how dolphins react to images on television. Their research has been conducted in Honduras, Northern California and the Florida Keys, among other places.

"Still, we know relatively little and have only scratched the surface about dolphin communication systems," he said.

Kuczaj heads the Department of Psychology's Marine Mammal Behavior and Cognition Laboratory. He and his graduate students have conducted international research on marine mammals and other animals for more than 20 years, both in the field and in captive facilities around the world. The laboratory's projects have received grant support from the Office of Naval Research and the U.S. Department of Commerce, among others. His work has been featured on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) and Japanese Public Television.

"Stan sets high standards for his own research and those who work with him, so it's no surprise that his work has gained this kind of attention," said Southern Miss Provost Dr. Denis Wiesenburg of the article.

Kuczaj said any research he conducts on dolphins relies totally on the voluntary participation of the animal. "We don't force them to do anything," he said. "We either observe them engaging in spontaneous behavior or attempt to design scenarios that will intrigue them.

"They have to want to participate. Some do, but others aren't interested, and because of that our research is limited by our ability to design problems that pique their curiosity."

After decades of such close contact, Kuczaj says he's confident about his ability to understand the dolphins he studies. "I believe, at this point, I can read them emotionally and behaviorally," he said. "They can certainly read me."

The Marine Mammal Behavior and Cognition Laboratory is housed in the College of Education and Psychology's Department of Psychology. For more information on the laboratory and Kuczaj's research, visit