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.
Pinky isn’t the only albino marine mammal to make the news. Migaloo, an all white humpback whale whose Aboriginal name means white man, has recently been sighted off the eastern Australian coast. First spotted in 1991, Migaloo, like other humpback whales, migrates each year to warm tropical waters in the winter to breed and back to Antarctic feeding waters in the spring. Southern Cross University whale researcher Wally Franklin credits an increase in whale watchers to Migaloo because "he is an amazing sight and easy to track… he has become the ambassador of his kind.'' As an ambassador, Queensland has declared him a special interest whale, with hefty fines levied on those who venture too close, whether by sea or air. All whales are protected by restrictions and fines for the sake of the animals and humans alike; full grown humpback whales can weigh more than a tractor trailer. With his special status, Migaloo is given a wider berth than his typically pigmented friends on his yearly track.
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.
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.
When I usually read about theft and the sea, I think of overfishing and depleted natural resources. But this time around, it is a hungry predator taking advantage. Check out this video on National Geographic Kids and get ready for a surprise around the 35 second mark. One particularly smart sperm whale has learned how to shake fish free of lines without injury. Perhaps if he had enough food in the open sea, he wouldn’t have to resort to such tactics.
And now you hate me because I’ve got Raffi stuck in your head! But you will soon get over that when you see the pictures of the new baby beluga calf at the Vancouver Aquarium. The second calf in as many years born at the aquarium, the as of yet unnamed beluga and her mother Aurora are fairing well. Born gray, wrinkly, and adorable, her skin will smooth out and lighten to the characteristically beluga white as she matures. There is much to learn about these arctic whales, so the chance to study the social behavior of these two calves is priceless.
Check out the http://www.vanaqua.org/belugacam/ "> Vancouver Aquarium’s website for video of the birth and a baby beluga webcam to see the little (almost) white whale on the go.
Aquarium staffers filmed the two calves meeting, the beginning of their research on the pairs' social behavior.
If you are looking for a good summer beach read, Eye of the Whale may be just the ticket. Billed as an ecological thriller, Douglas Carlton Abrams manages to successfully weave science into engaging storylines, providing a rich fictional entree into many of the issues Oceana works on. Abrams succeeds in giving threats such as ocean pollution, destructive fishing techniques, and the effects of climate change human (and cetacean) faces and with any luck, inspires his readers to action fueled by hope.
Ever wonder how you measure up (literally) compared to a blue whale? It is easy to throw around things like “largest mammal” and “gentle giant of the deep” but it can be hard to imagine just how large these animals are. Visit the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society website for a chance to see just how mammoth these creatures are. A life size image of a blue whale scrolls across your screen. The first image that loads is of an eye the size of your palm. I kid you not -- I gasped out loud. Encountering animals in their natural habitats is far more awe-inspiring than flash versions on my computer screen, but I’ll take the virtual version for now.
At the Aquarium of the Bay, four Pacific Angel sharks recently joined the small ranks of this rare species. In addition to being super cute, the birth of these sharks gives scientists an excellent opportunity to study these once plentiful fish.
But to catch a glimpse of these newborn cuties, you’ll have to visit ZooBorns; they are temporarily off exhibit in a behind-the-scenes nursery.
While I’m partial to the ray tray at the National Zoo in Baltimore, I am a fan of all aquaria and sting rays in particular. I even made a kite that was a large ray when I was in middle school. I wish I had held onto that kite for today so that I could fly it over the National Zoo in memory of its fallen brothers and sisters.
This past holiday weekend, almost all the sting rays in the Smithsonian National Zoo’s Amazon exhibit mysteriously died. Immediate testing of the water showed low oxygen levels and the Washington Post reports that the remaining rays and fish are fine. Low oxygen levels are reportedly the most common cause of death in wild and captive gilled fish but that doesn’t make this incident any less depressing.