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Contemporary knowledge of impressive neurophysiology and behavior in cetaceans, combined with increasing opportunities for studying free-ranging cetaceans who initiate sociable interaction with humans, are converging to highlight serious ethical considerations and emerging opportunities for a new era of progressive and less-invasive cetacean research. Most research on cetacean cognition has taken place in controlled captive settings, e.g., research labs, marine parks. While these environments afford a certain amount of experimental rigor and logistical control they are fraught with limitations in external validity, impose tremendous stress on the part of the captive animals, and place burdens on populations from which they are often captured. Alternatively, over the past three decades, some researchers have sought to focus their attention on the presence of free-ranging cetacean individuals and groups who have initiated, or chosen to participate in, sociable interactions with humans in the wild. This new approach, defined as Interspecies Collaborative Research between cetacean and human, involves developing novel ways to address research questions under natural conditions and respecting the individual cetacean's autonomy. It also offers a range of potential direct benefits to the cetaceans studied, as well as allowing for unprecedented cognitive and psychological research on sociable mysticetes. Yet stringent precautions are warranted so as to not increase their vulnerability to human activities or pathogens. When conducted in its best and most responsible form, collaborative research with free-ranging cetaceans can deliver methodological innovation and invaluable new insights while not necessitating the ethical and scientific compromises that characterize research in captivity. Further, it is representative of a new epoch in science in which research is designed so that the participating cetaceans are the direct recipients of the benefits.
Citation: Marino L, Frohoff T (2011) Towards a New Paradigm of Non-Captive Research on Cetacean Cognition. PLoS ONE 6(9): e24121. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024121
Editor: Karen McComb, University of Sussex, United Kingdom