Friday, October 14, 2011

Brains of the sea, or dogs of the sea?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, whales, conservation

Diana Reiss is passionate about dolphins (AKA porpoises), and about toothed whales generally, and her passion makes it all the more enjoyable to read The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives. From time to time I have followed research on these small whales. Living in the Philadelphia area, the beaches that I can reach most easily are in southern New Jersey and Delaware. On many beach visits I have observed pods of porpoises passing by.

In the book, Dr. Reiss consistently uses the term Dolphin for these small toothed whales. I tend to prefer the term Porpoise, which is never applied to a fish, and I avoid Dolphin because of confusion with the dolphin fish, or mahi-mahi. However, the expected common name of the most familiar small whale is Bottlenose Dolphin, so I can go along with the author for the sake of this review.

Her premise is simple. The bulk of the book demonstrates that dolphins are unusually intelligent and that they share many characteristics that were once thought to be unique to humans, such as creating tools and toys, empathy and sympathy, and a theory of mind, even deception. Consider tools. How can a creature with no hands make a tool? It isn't easy, but it is possible. In areas with a coral bottom, rooting around in the bottom debris for fish that hide by self-burial is painful for a dolphin. Most of the dolphins in such an area get around this by breaking off a hollow sponge, and pushing the end of the snout (called the "rostrum") inside. They root around with the sponge, and when a fish flushes, quickly discard the sponge to snatch up the fish.

Then there are toys. Like all animals smarter than the average lizard (and maybe some of the lizards), dolphins play, even as adults. They play with the sponges when they've finished "fishing" with them, they play with shells and with floating debris, and they have been observed playing with bubble rings they blow with careful blasts from their blowholes.

They don't just make rings and watch them. They make multiple rings and manipulate them to merge or to pass through, a smaller through a larger. They drop a bit of fish or other debris into a ring, and the vortex will support it for a while.

In early experiments into creating a common language, Dr. Reiss built a simple keyboard with shapes the animals could easily discern, and created the association between one of the three keys and a bit of food, another with a toy, and the third with a rub or pat. The dolphins quickly learned, first, to come appropriately for one of these three things, and later to push the buttons to request one of them.

During training, when a dolphin acted inappropriately, such as by splashing, the trainer (usually the author) would give it a timeout by withdrawing or turning her back for a moment. After some days or weeks of training, she happened to offer a piece of food that one dolphin didn't like. The dolphin swam a short distance away then lifted half out of the water and looked at her; it gave her a timeout! Parents, if you use timeout with your kids, at what age will a kid who gets angry with you tell you that you need a timeout?

Then there is theory of mind. This is the researcher's term for a sense of self, and it is studied using a mirror. Your pet dog always thinks the image it sees in a mirror is a different dog. Dogs never recognize themselves. Great apes do recognize themselves, perhaps after several exposures to the mirror. Monkeys never do, but elephants and some birds do. So do dolphins and some larger whales.

This is first seen by a change of behavior. An animal (including very young humans) that thinks the image is a fellow being will first respond socially, perhaps by playing alongside, offering a toy, or trying to communicate. Once self-recognition occurs, things are quite different. Then it is a matter of turning this way and that, examining body parts not usually seen, and pirouetting while observing, "Boy, I look fine!" But scientists are reluctant to take this evidence as a sense of self. More is needed.

The Mark Test was devised to prove that chimps know they are looking at themselves. While playing with a chimp, or even under anesthesia, a mark is made, often on the forehead, using a harmless dye. When a marked chimp who is accustomed to mirrors sees his or her marked face, the response is immediate: touching the mark and even trying to rub it off.

How can an animal with no hands pass the Mark Test? Dolphins marked with waterproof dye react with clear surprise when they see it. In a few cases, a dolphin went to the side or bottom of the pool and rubbed the mark off against it, then returned to see that it was gone. Mission accomplished!

Just how intelligent are dolphins? This is still a very hard question. We can't yet communicate with them beyond the three or four keys on the keyboard the author used. We aren't ready to discuss whale philosophy or even ask how they structure their social groups. Many, many observed behaviors between dolphins indicate that they can communicate complex ideas, but we don't understand their whistled language…yes, I consider that they have genuine language.

A side note: once at Cape Henlopen, Delaware, a beach near Lewes, a pod of porpoises came by. I put my head underwater to listen to them. I could hear the clicks, creaks and rattles of their echolocation (sonar) as they used it to locate fish and obstacles. I could also hear whistles, swooping sounds and quite a variety of other noises they were making. It sure sounded like communication to me, particularly when similar sounds were made in different "voices", presumably by different animals.

So far the only "word" that Dr. Reiss has been able to clearly decode is the distress call made by a hurt dolphin. It is a descending glissando that sounds like the whistle of a bottle rocket. I find this ironic; dogs, cats and parrots at the very least have shown the ability to learn to understand dozens, even up to 200, human words. We've spent billions to learn three or four words of Dolphin. It would not surprise me if we one day find out that there are many dolphin languages, just as there are about 10,000 human languages.

Absent asking them, how do we determine how brainy they are? The Encephalization Quotient (EQ) is one estimate. A logarithmic formula is used to calculate how heavy the brain of any animal "ought" to be for its body mass. The ratio of actual brain to theoretical brain is the EQ. The human EQ ranges from 6.5 to nearly 8. Even a clinical imbecile with an IQ of 40 and a low EQ can learn to speak and converse. The datum for EQ is the house cat. Dogs, cats and horses all have an EQ near 1. Elephants, some birds, large whales and most monkeys come in near 2. Orcas and Chimps range to 3.5. Dolphins, and porpoises generally, have EQ's that range from 4.5 to 6. If dolphins had hands, would they show themselves brighter than chimpanzees? Probably.

Now we come to the crux of the book. We have established that dolphins are self aware and intelligent, and probably communicate with languages. How are we to treat them? Considering the history of contact between members of "advanced" and "primitive" civilizations, the prospect is not hopeful. Indeed, although we now do our best to buy only "dolphin safe" tuna, there are still places, such as Taiji, Japan, where pods of dolphins are herded into a bay and slaughtered like sheep. Or, I should say, worse than sheep, because we take care these days to kill a sheep quickly and humanely. The residents of Taiji and other places just go after them with knives and gaffs, and frequently eviscerate them before they have died. I refrained from adding a picture, because all the ones I found were simply too disturbing.

Dr. Reiss is passionate about ending the dolphin slaughter. If we can end, or nearly end, the slaughter of harp seals (with an EQ of 0.8), why not the second-most intelligent creature we know about?

Secondly, she is passionate about ending captivity for "performing" dolphins. In the US, at least, no wild-caught dolphins have been introduced to aquariums for about twenty years. Captive breeding ensures sufficient supply. The author thinks the number of captive whales ought to be allowed to reduce by attrition (as they die off, of age or disease), until none remain.

How, then, shall we continue doing research with dolphins? There are two facilities I know about where wild dolphins are encouraged to interact with researchers, yet spend most of their time going their own way. Research proceeds more slowly this way, but the dolphins are free collaborators, so the research results ought to be more robust and meaningful.

What is happening in captivity? It is little thought of, but what happens if a captive dolphin is, shall we say, refractory? Maybe a little too aggressive with "trainers", perhaps less cooperative. Such an animal is either released or euthanized. So we are selecting for tolerance and even affection for humans among our aquarium dolphins. Let us recall the fox studies in Russia. The researcher there selected for just one characteristic: tolerance for humans. Over just six generations, the foxes became a lot like dogs. Their ears got soft, their tails curled, and they began to bark and play more. Now it is a couple of dozen generations, and the Russian foxes are just dogs with pointy noses. We are producing dolphin dogs. They are to a wild dolphin as a dog is to a wolf. Possibly able to survive in a feral state, but much better adapted to life with human companions.

For this reason, I reckon the research we do on captive dolphins is being skewed as they become water dogs. Like it or not, we will soon need to conduct research in more open environments, collaborating with wild dolphins, to get any meaningful results at all. And I suspect that one of the first things we will learn about dolphin language is that each oceanic region will have its own language, or perhaps several. Language studies performed at Monterrey Bay may be completely meaningless when compared to work done in South Africa or in Spain.

If someone from a distant star system is watching us, what do they think of the way we treat the other brainy creatures around us? We have nearly extincted the Chimps. Killing off the dolphins would be harder, but we are certainly capable of doing so. I think if any animal can pass the mirror self-recognition test, it ought to be banned from the menu. There are plenty of dumber animals out there to eat, both on land and in the sea and air. Remember the old show titled "To Serve Man", where the handbook turned out to be a cookbook? If someone ever arms the whales, watch out!

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