Read our COVID-19 research and news.

These dolphins enjoy watching SpongeBob SquarePants—and it could be good for them

To keep captive dolphins entertained, marine facilities typically give them pool noodles and rings to play with. But a new study suggests these ocean mammals also enjoy a more human pastime: TV.

Researchers at Dolphins Plus Marine Mammal Responder in Key Largo, Florida, positioned large TV screens at underwater windows and played videos for groups of 11 bottlenose (Tursiops truncatus) and five rough-toothed (Steno bredanensis) dolphins. These included ocean or jungle scenes from the nature documentary Planet Earth and episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants (to test whether the dolphins preferred shows with more naturalistic ocean settings). Then they monitored the dolphins’ behavior for signs of interest, such as pressing their heads against the glass or nodding their heads, or signs of aggression, such as clamping their jaws or swimming with jerky movements.

The dolphins didn’t have a favorite show: They were interested in the TV regardless of what was on, according to results the team will publish in Zoo Biology. Even hearing-impaired dolphins paid attention, indicating that moving pictures alone might captivate dolphins. Some animals—particularly the males—reacted more aggressively than others, the researchers noted.

The team suggests dolphin keepers interested in trying this approach with the animals in their care should conduct trial sessions first. For dolphins that are unfit for release, TV could be another way to stimulate their brains. The researchers also cite another potential benefit: Monitoring how dolphins respond to different videos could provide new ways to study how they think.