A review of Diana Reiss' "The Dolphin in the Mirror," which makes the case that dolphins are fully conscious, highly communicative and even possess an artistic sensibility.

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‘The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives’

by Diana Reiss

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 276 pp., $27

Flipper could protect Coral Key Nature Preserve from criminals. But could he split atoms or write the marine equivalent of Beethoven’s fifth symphony?

“Dolphins are among the smartest creatures on the planet — fully conscious, creative, and highly communicative, with an intelligence rare in nature,” writes Diana Reiss in “The Dolphin in the Mirror.”

Now director of dolphin research at Baltimore’s National Aquarium, Reiss has spent three decades proving that these “nonterrestrial thinkers” can recognize themselves in mirrors, practice deception and solve problems in ways usually associated only with human beings and great apes.

In fact, dolphins’ creation of elaborate bubble rings may prove that these charming mammals have an artistic sensibility. “The aesthetics and easy inventiveness that take place around the bubble rings belie the cognitive abilities that bubble-ring production demands,” she writes. “Here we have dolphins making arbitrary play objects appear out of thin air.”

Reiss, who served as an adviser on the Oscar-winning 2009 film “The Cove,” which documented bloody dolphin hunts in Taiji, Japan, writes passionately about the need to protect these sentient creatures who she believes are capable of empathy. “Scientists and trainers who have worked with dolphins routinely see such behaviors … as if the dolphins feel the distress of a buddy in a difficult situation,” she writes of dolphins who rush to the aid of sick companions and, sometimes, injured humans. “It may be the dolphin equivalent of Bill Clinton’s saying, ‘I feel your pain.’ “

Justin Moyer can be reached at moyerj@washpost.com.