The fictitious storybook character Dr. Doolittle devoted his medical practice to understanding animals using their own languages. Caroline DeLong, an assistant professor of psychology at RIT, is a real-life Doolittle whose research focuses on object discrimination in goldfish and echolocation in dolphins to bring scientists closer to unlocking the mysteries of animal perception and cognition.
DeLong’s theories suggest that marine animals—from intelligent dolphins to pet-store goldfish with tiny brains—may recognize and represent objects similarly to humans. Specifically, they may be able to recognize an object from any orientation—called object constancy— just like humans can.
DeLong has been studying animals for about 20 years. Research by DeLong and other scientists on echolocation, or biological sonar, can help engineers create advanced software and hardware capable of underwater object recognition. Biomimetic sonar systems, based on the structure and function of animal sonar systems, outperform traditional manmade sonar systems.
“Learning about cognitive processes dolphins engage in during echolocation can help the Navy or NASA to build a superior biomimetic system,” DeLong says.
DeLong has started a new line of research on visual object recognition using goldfish so that students can be directly involved in training animals in her lab.
In a controlled environment, DeLong and her students have trained goldfish to recognize a black circle attached to the tank, and choose that circle—even when other shapes (rectangles) are also present. The fish tap the circle with their mouths to receive a food reward. Eventually, DeLong and her students will investigate whether the fish perform the same as humans, pigeons or monkeys on tests of object constancy.
DeLong joined the RIT faculty in 2008 and has conducted research in human and animal cognition and sensory perception. Earning her doctorate from the University of Hawaii in 2003 provided her with an opportunity to work closely with marine life. She worked at Brown University in Rhode Island studying bat echolocation before coming to RIT.
“Since I was a child, I have been fascinated by how animals communicate and view the world,” she says. “If I could magically view the world through a dolphin’s eyes for a day, I would. Humans view the world using our own sensory systems, and it’s amazing to begin to learn how all these different animals view their world using their own sensory systems.”
DeLong will soon conquer another ecosystem in her research. A partnership with Rochester’s Seneca Park Zoo will allow her to conduct visual object recognition research using semi-aquatic North American river otters.
“This partnership with the zoo will allow me to share my research with zoo visitors,” adds DeLong. “Specially designed exhibits and programs will engage zoo visitors and allow me to collect lots of interesting new data. This is a researcher’s dream project.”