Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ocean Smarts: dolphin tools and elephant seal affections

Many people consider human intelligence to be the most advanced compared to other animals - "It's what sets us apart from the beasts." I'm not so sure. I think it's safe to say we have the most complex and perhaps possess a higher level of reasoning, but these traits evolved, as with animals, as a means of survival.

As animals evolved to survive - to eat, breed, take flight or fight - they developed traits that can leave mankind in the dust. The sensory capabilities of, say, sharks or birds as an example, and the intelligence required to process those sensory inputs can far exceed any of our capabilities. So, it's always interesting when we find animals engaging in actions that seem to imply a level of thinking far beyond what we would normally associate with that species. We're always a little surprised when an animal acts like us.

The classic example was the belief that the use of tools was a major divider between mankind and the animal kingdom. At least it was a widely held belief until researchers like Dr. Jane Goodall and others documented chimpanzees and other monkeys and apes not only using rudimentary tools to assist in the pursuit of food, but that they also pass along those techniques to their offspring.

The use of tools is now possibly showing up within a population of dolphins in western Australia. In 2007, researchers from Murdoch University in Perth noted dolphins holding a conch shell, shaking it at the surface. Further close inspection of photographs taken at the time revealed that the dolphin was shaking the shell to drain the water from inside, thereby dislodging a fish that was hiding in the shell, and gaining a meal. A review of data on this population of dolphins in Shark Bay collected over 30 years, revealed a half dozen sightings of this behavior over two decades.

But this year, in just a four month period starting in May, researchers recorded this behavior on seven different occasions. This has scientists from the university wondering if they are seeing the spread of a learned behavior.

"There's a possibility here -- and it's speculation at this stage -- that this sort of change from seeing it six or seven times in 21 years to seeing it six or seven times in three months gives us that tantalizing possibility that it might be spreading before our very eyes," says Simon Allen from the university's Cetacean Research Unit. "It's too early to say definitively yet, but we'll be watching very closely over the next couple of field seasons."

The possibility exists that the dolphins are passing along this specialized hunting technique not just in a vertical manner, as in from mother to calf, but horizontally with other dolphins within the group. However, to prove that using the conch shell as a rudimentary tool, researchers may need to conduct a series of tests to show that the dolphin is consciously choosing to do so.

"If we could put some shells in a row or put them facing down or something like that and then come back the next day, if we don't actually see them do it but find evidence that they've turned the shell over or make it into an appealing refuge for a fish, then that implies significant forward planning on the dolphins' parts," said Allen. "The nice idea is that there is this intriguing possibility that they might manipulate the object beforehand. Then that might change using the shell as just a convenient object into actual tool use."

So, animals continue to surprise and cause us to continually redefine what separates mankind from the rest of the animal kingdom. I say why bother? We are all part of the same global collection of living creatures, each having found a niche in the evolutionary cycle according to our gifts. Mankind may be a greater beneficiary of the evolutionary process in some respects, but I am continually reminded in my travels both on land and below the waves that we need not gloat too long or too loud.

Every once in a while, the walls that separate us from other animals can appear to momentarily come down, as you can see in this video taken several years ago with a researcher making friends with a young elephant seal. The seal's natural hesitancy gave way to curiosity and then a comfort level that looks for all the world as if the seal is taking a real shine to the young woman researcher.

Of course, before we ascribe some human characteristic to this seal's behavior, one must always be aware that these are animals who can think and react to situations in ways very different from us and, therefore, can be unpredictable. What appears to be a brief moment of affection could have turned into something much different in an instant.

But it's still cute as the dickens.

Read about the dolphins in Reuters.

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