Saturday, October 14, 2006

Dolphins are more intelligent than a certain expert thinks!

Dolphins have remarkable equipment for negotiating their watery world: a gigantic brain, excellent memory, profound hearing and their tour de force echolocation.Echolocation is a perfectly-named sensory system for locating objects by sound. Bats and dolphins send out sound waves that ricochet back in an altered state, changed by the size and material they hit.Dolphins differentiate plastic from metal, air pockets from tissue and tell metals apart. Imagine being able to hear blood flow.

They have reasonable vision and the same basic sense of taste as people.Speaking of good taste, they also have something that makes them part bloodhound. Dolphins occasionally follow the trails of long-gone dolphins with startling precision. Consider the following.At sea, our boat sensing equipment puts a visual track of our journeys on a computer map. We can see exactly where the dolphins have been.

Dawn on April Fool's Day this year, we were preparing to launch when dolphins swam past in pastel waters of pink and orange. Around the corner, two dozen dolphins mingled loosely. Some hunted along sea walls. Others blended snacks and sex. This quiet riot was mesmerizing. It kept my cameras clicking. Eventually the picnic broke up. Subgroups began heading in different directions. We trailed a congenial quartet. They rose so rhythmically in water as smooth as ice, we were soon as serene as they.

Such strolls take your blood pressure home. We hated to leave to do our scheduled survey.We found the cordial quartet later, still rolling and petting as they meandered southward across a shallow sea grass meadow toward John's Pass. We went north. Next was a lone dolphin (a singleton) from Sarasota, Mote 130. As we trailed it to take its picture, it did the most startlingly thing: It virtually took the same path as the long-gone quartet. Then there was that steamy Aug. 13, when mother-calf Valiant and VC swam across from a pretty little mangrove island to the north.

They swam in syncopation like dolphins do when they're going somewhere directly, Valiant breathing first, VC breathing right after.They entered a narrow pass to a broad bay, veering left at one point before straightening out and heading directly for a promising sand spit. Valiant hunted. VC frolicked nearby, still nourished on Valiant's milk without the need for serious solids. When they left, they headed towards The Narrows until Valiant found another promising place to eat. We left them, finished the northern survey and passed the pretty little mangrove island on the return leg about an hour later.

As before, we spied a mother-calf pair across from it. They too swam in the synchrony of dolphins with a destination. They cut through the narrow pass into the broad bay, veered left at the entrance and aimed for the same sand spit as Valiant and VC had done. Mother hunted. Calf frolicked nearby. It was that funny little veer to the left that caught my eye. Had Valiant and VC done the preposterous and sped southward to repeat their previous behavior? If not, who were these guys? Not all dolphins are recognizable in the field.

I couldn't wait to get back to the lab. The second pair was Strip and Stripe. They'd done exactly as Valiant and VC had done an hour before.Lastly, the enthusiastically randy males Riptab and BB were prancing around Scrapefin the September morning of the Treasure Island Regatta. We usually attribute such behavior to the rites of spring, but dolphins here date heavily in the fall.

They carried on for quite a while before sprinting towards the Gulf of Mexico. Presently, another trio appeared. Two of the three slowly traced the steps of the long-gone mating dolphins.Maybe dolphins are part bloodhound. What else can they do that we don't suspect?

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"