The Beacon

Blog Tags: Dolphins

Whale Wednesday: Whales on the Brain

A few weeks ago, I wrote about research that suggests whales and dolphins have cultures the same way humans do. A recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine points to similarities in the brains of social animals -- whales, great apes, and yes, humans -- that might explain the ability to work within social structures. Combining lab research with fieldwork and medical studies, scientists have discovered that the presence of von Economo neurons signifies ability to successfully communicate with others. Elephants and whales, like humans, operate in elaborate societies, quickly adapting to changing situations, such as rescuing an abandoned calf. The absence or destruction of these neurons, as in the case with certain neurological diseases, leads to a break down in social skills and adaptability.

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Whale Wednesday: Learn How To Echolocate!

Do me a favor and try this: stay where you are and click your tongue against the roof of your mouth. Now walk somewhere else, and click your tongue again. Can you hear a difference? Congratulations, you’re on your way to learning how to echolocate! Whales and dolphins use echolocation to navigate and locate objects in the dark ocean. According to acoustic experts in Spain, people can use tongue clicks to “see” things by listening to the way the noise reverberates off its surroundings. All you have to do is recognize changes in your tongue clicks based on what is around you. Apparently, two hours per day for a couple of weeks is enough to determine if something is in front of you, and it takes a couple more weeks to differentiate between a tree and pavement. The most ideal sound is the “palate click” where you place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth just behind your teeth and quickly move your tongue backwards.

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Whale Wednesday: Cetacean Culture

When talking about whales and culture, I typically think of the role these marine mammals play in island societies, a la Whale Rider and the Maori of New Zealand. But recent research on whales and dolphins show that whales can be the same species, genetically similar, and even occupy the same habitat yet individual pods behave and interact with each other very differently. It is almost as if within species of whales there are different cultures. While it has been known for decades that whales have different vocalization patterns, the type of generational research performed in labs on smaller animals like primates and birds is just starting to happen for these larger marine animals and indications of “personhood” behaviors are beginning to emerge. Scientists have shown that certain primates are self aware, have feelings, and high-level cognitive powers and according to new research, whales and dolphins do too.

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Your Daily Dose of Cute

Some more cute marine mammals entered the world recently. Over at SeaWorld San Diego, staffers used sex selection techniques to keep an optimal balance between male and female Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and brought about the birth of a brand new female calf. Three California sea lions at the Belfast Zoo became mothers after nearly a year-long gestation period. As part of a European breeding program, the Belfast Zoo has seen the birth of 10 sea lions in the last four years. Ah, breeding programs are my favorite -- where science and cuteness meet.

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Can You Hear Me Now?

A recent study conducted at the University of Hawaii provides “sound” evidence that sonar induces temporary deafness in bottlenose dolphins. Many have long blamed man-made noise -- mainly sonar used by the navy -- for mass strandings of whale and dolphin species. Although this study does not provide concrete proof that submarine and warship sonar activity is causing strandings, it does prove definitively that sonar activity can affect cetaceans if they are close enough to the source and exposed over a prolonged period of time. Whales and dolphins use sound for navigation and temporary deafness can leave them disoriented. They are traveling over very large distances and cannot afford to lose their sense of direction. If they were to accidentally swim into a shallow area or be washed ashore, they could rapidly become dehydrated and die.

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Dolphins Deter Pirates

As if the Somali pirates story wasn't dramatic and compelling enough, feisty marine mammals have added a new twist. According to China Radio, thousands of dolphins blocked the suspected Somali pirate ships when they were trying to attack Chinese merchant ships passing the Gulf of Aden. When the defiant dolphins leapt out of water between the two parties, the alleged pirate ships stopped and then turned away. Or, as the Chinese media release states: "The pirates could only lament their littleness before the vast number of dolphins." All right, that's it. Someone has GOT to make this into a movie.

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Good News for Irrawaddy Dolphins

irrawaddy river dolphin

Another celebratory first from Hawaii: at the first international conference on protected areas for marine mammals, biologists working in Bangladesh reported that they found a thriving population of 6,000 Irrawaddy dolphins, a mother lode considering that marine mammal experts had feared the species was vulnerable to extinction. And although the dolphins are doing much better than predicted, scientists say they still need to be protected from the rising threat of fishing net entanglement (i.e.,bycatch) and global warming, which will likely raise sea levels and change the river flows, shrinking the species’ range. Other river dolphin and porpoise species have not fared so well. (Though it's important to note that Irrawaddy dolphins aren't true river dolphins but oceanic dolphins that live in brackish water.) In 2007, the baiji, a river dolphin in China's Yangtze River was pronounced extinct as a result of the enormous amount of human activity in the area. And who could forget the adorable and critically endangered vaquita marina, a porpoise in the Gulf of California, whose remaining 150-member population is also threatened by fishing nets.

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The Scanner

This week in ocean news, ...A 72 million-year-old sea turtle fossil -- the oldest on record -- was discovered in Mexico. ...A council plans to vote in June on protecting the sea floor from Florida to North Carolina from bottom trawls, bottom longlines and other destructive fishing gear. The 23,000 square miles is thought to encompass the largest deepwater reef system in the world. ...Almost 200 pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins were stranded on a beach in Tasmania, the fourth beaching incident there in recent months. ...The fisher poets (no relation to yours truly) had their annual gathering in Oregon. ...Scientists discovered a carnivorous sea squirt that looks like a desk lamp. ...As the OCYC notes, David de Rothschild is leading a project to build a 60-foot catamaran out of plastic bottles, called Plastiki, which he will sail from California to Australia. ...A Bengal tiger cub and a dolphin made friends. The next Disney Pixar movie, anyone?

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Dolphin Design

lunocet dolphin fin

If humans are clumsy and slow in the water, at least we're good at stealing performance-enhancing ideas from other animals. In this case, from dolphins, who can swim up to 33 miles per hour. Georgia engineer Ted Ciamillo has invented the Lunocet, a 2.5-pound monofin made of carbon fiber and fiberglass. Its shape and angle are precisely modeled on a dolphin's tail -- and it's making Michael Phelps look like a sea slug. Swimmers have already hit about eight miles per hour wearing the fin, which is twice as fast as Phelps at a sprint. Marine biologist Frank Fish (yes, you read that right) provided Ciamillo with data from CAT scans of dolphins' tails that he used to design his fins. And as you could probably guess, the Lunocet ain't cheap: they go for about $1,800 each.

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Dolphin Dilemma

new jersey dolphins

Recall the group of 16 bottlenose dolphins that curiously ended up in several New Jersey rivers this summer, and took up residency there? Now that the dolphins have apparently left the Garden State (three died, the others either went back out to sea or are trapped under frozen rivers), folks on all sides of the issue are debating whether NOAA did the right thing in not rescuing the creatures.

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