Saturday, November 15, 2008

Can dolphins outsmart humans?

Partly because their brains are roughly the same size as humans, and are similarly or superiorly complex (although differently evolved in structure), some marine biologists have speculated that dolphins, and other Cetaceans, are at least as intelligent as humans, and could have several unknown communicative abilities, that surpass human understanding.

Critics say that if dolphins were as smart as us there’d be more evidence of it. But what type of evidence would suffice? The fact that Cetaceans are suffering from (rather than creating) the kind of environmental suicide that humans indulge in, offers little proof of inferiority.

At the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi, Kelly the Dolphin has earned her reputation. In fact, it could very well be that she has now got the upper hand on her human trainers… or pets?

All the dolphins at the center are trained to retrieve trash that has mistakenly fallen in to their pools. Upon seeing a nearby trainer, they are to take said trash to the trainer. In return, they receive a fish for their cleanliness.

However it seems that Kelly found a loophole in the system, and is exploiting it to interesting ends. She hoards her trash, underneath a rock at the bottom of her pool, and when she sees a trainer she goes down and removes a piece of paper or trash to get her fish. However she won’t use all her paper at once, instead she holds on to them for the future.

It is an interesting behavior, considering that it is very much like humans storing food for the winter; it displays an awareness of tomorrow.

Dolphins have long been observed to take great care and exhibit much intelligence in their day to day lives. Scientists have observed a dolphin using the spiny body of a dead scorpion fish to extricate a moray eel out of a crevice.

Comparatively, in Australia, Dolphins have been witnessed to place sea-sponges over their snouts as they star poking around in the surrounding area. This protection helps them from being stung by stonefish and stingrays.

But it isn’t just these behaviors that seem to prove their intelligence, but also the commonalities with humans in the way that they play and learn.

Younger dolphin calves will most likely learn new things in an attempt to keep up with those around them, rather than learn directly from their mothers. From balancing kelp on their tail to swimming through bubble rings, it seems an effort to match their peers is what drives them on.

And just as young children are always trying to match those around them, so they want to enjoy the activity rather than just the outcome. It isn’t always a case of the means justifying the ends. The same goes for dolphins, who seem to beef up the level of difficulty of the games they create for themselves.

It is their ability to understand sentences of sign language that astound though, with a sentence like “touch the frisbee with your tail and then jump over it” returning just that from the dolphin. This proves more than just rigorous training is the answer, but an understanding of what we are asking of them.

The year 2007 has been declared as Year of the Dolphin by the United Nations and United Nations Environment Programme. But what do we really know about these incredible creatures? In 1967, acoustics expert Wayne Batteau developed a technique based on ultrasounds to communicate with domesticated dolphins. At the origin of the study, the US Navy cryptically decided to classify the results as top secret.

It is known that the prehistoric predecessors of Cetaceans were land animals who returned to the sea where there was relatively little fear of large predators and an abundant food supply. Dolphins seem to have rich communicative powers among themselves and are very playful. It is also known that dolphins can use tools and teach their children how to use tools.

Dolphins are one of the few animals other than humans known to mate for pleasure rather than strictly for reproduction. They form strong bonds with each other, which leads them to stay with their injured and sick. Dolphins also display protective behavior towards humans, by keeping them safe from sharks, for example.

Historically, humans have long reported an affinity with dolphins, including joint cooperative fisheries in ancient Rome and other interactions. A modern human-dolphin fishery still takes place in Laguna, Santa Catarina, Brazil.

However, humans are known to benefit from dolphins in more intangible ways, as well. One example of a little understood benefit comes from an ongoing study conducted at The AquaThought Foundation, a privately funded research organization dedicated to the exploration of human-dolphin interaction. Their research shows several significant trends that have emerged in the analysis of samples collected before and after human/dolphin interactions.

According to their research, the human subject's dominate brain frequency drops significantly after dolphin interaction. Also observable is a period of hemispheric synchronization (the brainwaves emitted from both the left and right hemispheres of the brain are in phase and of similar frequency). Also, in many instances the background EEG became more evenly distributed within the spectrum. It is believed that this phenomenon may have some sort of therapeutic effect on an individual’s emotional, or physical health.

Other institutes that study dolphins, and other Cetaceans, have reported a myriad of differing perspectives and beliefs, which range from heart-warming to downright bizarre.

The Hawaii based Sirius Institute, known for sending live humpback whalesongs into deep space, says their primary goals is for the reestablishment of interspecies communications with the biggest, most complex brains on the planet.One of their projects is an interspecies birth cohort, a group of children who would be birthed with dolphins and raised somewhat together in order to study the development of communications between the close-knit groups.

These open-minded Cetacea advocates point out that like humans, the Cetaceans transmit information culturally across generations, have the largest brains, and are the longest lived of all species. They would like humans to officially recognize the order Cetacea as a “people”. They believe that step is necessary for their preservations, as was historically necessary to stop genocide of humans. One example is the Australian aboriginal people, who were legally classed as “game animals” until 1967 when they won their “rights as human beings” in a court action.

While Cetaceans aren’t likely to take mankind to court, it has been suggested that they are willing to communicate with us—possibly in a form that WE are too stupid to cognitively interpret.
Is it possible that someday man or dolphin will have figured out a way to effectively communicate? While the concept seems strange, and fantastic—it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t that long ago when no one thought space travel was possible. At the present, enormous amounts of money, focus and energy is poured into our search for intelligent . Maybe we should be simultaneously supporting efforts to communicate with intelligent life on our own planet.

After all, it might be good practice for the future. If we someday do make contact with intelligent alien life, how would we communicate? Surely extra-terrestrials will have evolved with a much different intellectual/physical capabilities than us. Even if a particular alien life form is as intelligent or even possesses far superior cognitive abilities—that doesn’t mean we’ll have compatible biological systems for true communication.

How will we overcome those physical and intellectual communication barriers? Learning to more effectively communicate and understand differently evolved life forms on our planet may provide important insights into possible future interactions with life beyond planet Earth.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"