Saturday, February 28, 2009

Are there some similarities between dolphins and humans?

This is the first installment in a regular column I will be writing for the Gloucester Daily Times.

You may have already seen my name in the Times over the past few months, providing information on seal strandings on Cape Ann. Last fall, we saw an unusually high number of harbor seal strandings on Cape Ann's shores, while currently, we are in the midst of the peak season for harp and hooded seal (ice seals) strandings.

I study seals and other marine mammals inhabiting the Gulf of Maine — humpback whales, North Atlantic right whales, and Atlantic white-sided dolphins, to name a few. In this column, I will share information about these and other inhabitants of the sea. In addition to covering marine topics pertinent to the Gulf of Maine, I will incorporate what I have learned from my wildlife research in other parts of the world such as Africa, Alaska, and New Zealand.

Similar to the evolutionary history of the marine mammals that I study, my own life's "evolution" started on land and has brought me to the sea. Born and raised in the land-locked state of Iowa, my interest in marine biology was originally peaked by taking a high school marine biology course in Des Moines. Two years later, as an undergraduate at Duke University, I was seaside at the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, N.C. In Beaufort and later Zanzibar, Tanzania, I literally got my feet wet in the field of marine mammalogy by studying bottlenose dolphin behavior. While marine mammal field research is neither easy nor always "Discovery Channel" spectacular, I was hooked.

After earning my B.S. degree from Duke and working for a few years at a biotechnology company back in Des Moines, the pull of the ocean was too strong to overcome and once again I found myself seaside. This time it was in Texas, where I enrolled in a graduate program at Texas A&M University and was based at the marine biology campus in Galveston. While there are ample marine mammals residing off Texas' coast in the warm, subtropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico, my Master's and Ph.D. research brought me instead to the cool, subpolar waters of Alaska and New Zealand. In Alaska, I sought to understand the behavior of male sea otters in Prince William Sound, while in New Zealand, my quest was to unravel the social lives of dusky dolphins in the Marlborough Sounds.

While much of my research has focused on the mammalian inhabitants of the sea, I have also studied mammalian inhabitants of terra firma such as lemurs, chimpanzees, Colobus monkeys, and even humans. Despite being separated in space and time by millions of years of evolution, terrestrial mammals (especially primates) and marine mammals have more in common than you might expect.

In my next column, I will discuss some of these similarities and what we terrestrially-based humans can learn from marine mammals. In the meantime, please feel free to stop by and tour the Whale Center of New England's Visitor Center at 24 Harbor Loop in Gloucester. You will find a full humpback whale skeleton as well as amazing photos and facts about the whales and other marine mammals with which we share this blue world.

Heidi Pearson is the assistant director and stranding coordinator of the Whale Center of New England, based at harbor Loop in Gloucester.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"