Welcome to our new website

Forward shift of feeding buzz components of dolphins and belugas during associative learning reveals a likely connection to reward expectation, pleasure and brain dopamine activation
S. H. Ridgway, P. W. Moore, D. A. Carder, T. A. Romano


For many years, we heard sounds associated with reward from dolphins and belugas. We named these pulsed sounds victory squeals (VS), as they remind us of a child's squeal of delight. Here we put these sounds in context with natural and learned behavior. Like bats, echolocating cetaceans produce feeding buzzes as they approach and catch prey. Unlike bats, cetaceans continue their feeding buzzes after prey capture and the after portion is what we call the VS. Prior to training (or conditioning), the VS comes after the fish reward; with repeated trials it moves to before the reward. During training, we use a whistle or other sound to signal a correct response by the animal. This sound signal, named a secondary reinforcer (SR), leads to the primary reinforcer, fish. Trainers usually name their whistle or other SR a bridge, as it bridges the time gap between the correct response and reward delivery. During learning, the SR becomes associated with reward and the VS comes after the SR rather than after the fish. By following the SR, the VS confirms that the animal expects a reward. Results of early brain stimulation work suggest to us that SR stimulates brain dopamine release, which leads to the VS. Although there are no direct studies of dopamine release in cetaceans, we found that the timing of our VS is consistent with a response after dopamine release. We compared trained vocal responses to auditory stimuli with VS responses to SR sounds. Auditory stimuli that did not signal reward resulted in faster responses by a mean of 151 ms for dolphins and 250 ms for belugas. In laboratory animals, there is a 100 to 200 ms delay for dopamine release. VS delay in our animals is similar and consistent with vocalization after dopamine release. Our novel observation suggests that the dopamine reward system is active in cetacean brains.


  • * Present address: Mystic Aquarium, a division of Sea Research Foundation, 55 Coogan Blvd, Mystic, CT 06355, USA.

  • Author contributions

    All authors participated in data collection, execution of the work and writing the manuscript.

  • Competing interests

    The authors declare no competing financial interests.

  • Funding

    Funding was provided by the US Navy Marine Mammal Program. (www.public.navy.mil/spawar/Pacific/71500/Pages/default.aspx). This constitutes scientific contribution no. 219 from the Sea Research Foundation.

View Full Text