Even though we know that Killer Whales, or Orcas, do not attack humans, its still incredible to witness the gentle nature of these ocean giants.
For New Zealander Judie Johnson it was an experience of a lifetime as she got eyeball to eyeball with a Killer Whale mother and her two calves.
Ms Johnson was initially shocked to realize that it was Killer Whales and not dolphins which had joined her on her regular swim at Hahei Beach.
It was only after noticing the distinctive white coloring that she understood that it was a pod of Orcas which were keeping her company.
Orca attacks on people are virtually unheard of, though it must still be very intimidating to find oneself at the mercy of such massive beasts.
When they need to be, they can certainly be deadly killing machines. Even the much-feared Great White shark is no match for a Killer Whale, who are known to rip out and feast on the liver of their prey.
Killer Whales also snack on seals – which are not dissimilar in appearance to Ms Johnson in her black wetsuit.
Eye to eye with a Killer Whale
Ms Johnson however was undaunted and decided to take a second swim with the Orcas!
She described how the whale came up to within a metered of here, saying “We just looked at each other like that, with it’s huge eyes.”
The experience was captured by a local, Dylan Brayshaw, who rushed to grab his drone camera after he saw the drama unfolding about 25 meters offshore.
The video demonstrates the wonderfully curious and friendly nature of Killer Whales. Its also easy to see how easily whales can and have been hunted down by fishermen over the past few centuries.
Attacks by Great Whites on humans are certainly more common and there have been several recent instances in places such as Australia and South Africa.
However, a video which was captured last month on South Africa’s east coast showed how a group of surfers fortunately had their lives spared.
Orcas are reportedly the most widely distributed mammal on earth, apart from humans. The New Zealand population of Killer Whales is small – estimated to be around 150-200.
The creatures are actually most closely related to dolphins and can reach up to nearly 10 meters long. Their dorsal fins can protrude higher than a meter out of the water.
(TMU) – For much of the world, it’s been weeks if not months since we entered lockdown. And while humanity hitting the “pause” button has seemingly been a blessing in disguise for some creatures who have used the respite to enjoy clean air and water for the first time in decades, other animals actually may miss us human beings.
Such appears to be the case for the dolphins who hang out at Tin Can Bay in Queensland, Australia, where the sea mammals have been lining up to bring gifts ashore – “apparently because they’re missing interaction with humans,” according to a report by 7News.
Barnacles Café and Dolphin feeding is typically filled with tourists throughout the year, and offers visitors the priceless opportunity to interact with wild humpback dolphins. And the wild dolphins do enjoy the opportunity to be treated to fresh fish by happy visitors.
But Australia began imposing strict quarantine rules in the middle of March, visitors stopped lining up to feed the animals – and the humpbacks may be worried about the sudden disappearance of their land-loving bipedal friends.
According to Barnacles, the local dolphin pod has been presenting gifts to staff at the café, ranging from barnacle-encrusted bottles to sea sponges and fragments of coral.
“The pod has been bringing us regular gifts, showing us how much they’re missing the public interaction and attention. They are definitely missing you all.”
A volunteer at the café told reporters from ABC that while the pod has displayed this behavior in the past, the gestures have been increasing since the venue shut down.
For dolphin expert and University of Queensland PhD student Barry McGovern, the explanation for the dolphins’ behavior could be far more mundane.
“Nothing surprises me with dolphins and their behavior anymore. They do everything – they use tools, they have culture, they have something similar to names in signature whistles.”
In general, dolphins are one of the most intelligent animal species on the planet. From their playful nature to their sociability and friendliness toward humans, as well as their legendary interactions with seafarers, dolphins have inspired the adoration of humans since time immemorial.
Increasingly, human researchers are discovering that dolphins display skills and sophistication previously attributed only to the human species, including strong problem solving capabilities and a complex system of communication.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we should project our own feelings of longing borne of the quarantine onto ocean mammals. McGovern explained:
“In all likelihood, they probably don’t miss humans per se … They probably miss a free meal and the routine.”
Dolphins are also generally prone to “play-like behavior.” McGovern said:
“They often play with bits of weed and coral and all sorts of things and just leave it on their rostrum (nose).They’re used to getting fed now, so they’re used to humans coming in. When it’s not happening, maybe it’s just out of boredom.”
Since coronavirus restrictions are being phased out, Barnacles Café has reopened and they have resumed dolphin feeding activities.
Never underestimate the intelligence or abilities of dolphins. (Photo: Matt9122/Shutterstock)
Dolphins never cease to amaze. As researchers delve into the underwater world of these brilliant cetaceans, we’re learning how full of surprises these creatures are, from their intricate social lives to their intelligence. Here are just some of the ways dolphins are exceptional, both physically and mentally.
1. Dolphins evolved from land-based animals
Dolphins didn’t always live in the water. They are what’s called reentrants. Millions of years ago, the ancestors of dolphins roamed across land. The dolphins we know today are evolved from even-toed ungulates, which had hoof-like toes at the end of each foot. But around 50 million years ago, these ancestor animals decided the ocean was a better place to live. They eventually returned to the water and evolved into the dolphins that we know today.
The evidence for this evolutionary history can still be seen in dolphins today. Adult dolphins and whales have remnant finger bones in their flippers, as well as vestigial leg bones. (For a quick refresher on homologous structures, the structures found in different species that originated from a common ancestor, read 8 uncanny examples of convergent evolution.)
2. Dolphins stay awake for weeks on end
A female dolphin with her calf. Neither of them are getting much sleep! (Photo: Jman78/iStockPhoto)
Recent research has shown the surprising capability of dolphins to stay awake for days or weeks on end — or possibly indefinitely.
On the one hand, the ability makes perfect sense. Dolphins need to go to the ocean’s surface to breathe, so they can’t simply breathe automatically like humans do. They have to stay constantly awake to take a breath and avoid drowning. How do they do this? By resting just one half of their brain at a time, a process called unihemispheric sleep.
Brian Branstetter, a marine biologist with the National Marine Mammal Foundation, and fellow researchers conducted a test with two dolphins, seeing how long they could stay alert. According to Live Science:
The scientists found these dolphins could successfully use echolocation with near-perfect accuracy and no sign of deteriorating performance for up to 15 days. The researchers did not test how much longer the dolphins could have continued. “Dolphins can continue to swim and think for days without rest or sleep, possibly indefinitely,” Branstetter said. These findings suggest that dolphins evolved to sleep with only half their brains not only to keep from drowning, but also to remain vigilant.
Breathing and not being eaten are two excellent reasons to keep at least half of the brain active at all times. But what about baby dolphins? Turns out, they don’t sleep either. For as long as a month after birth, dolphin calves don’t catch a wink of sleep. Researchers think this is an advantage, helping the calf to better escape predators, keeping the body temperature up while the body accumulates blubber, and even encouraging brain growth.
3. Most dolphins don’t chew
Dolphin do have teeth, but they aren’t used for chewing. (Photo: Alicia Chelini/Shutterstock)
If you’ve ever watched a dolphin eat, you may have noticed that they seem to gulp down their food. That’s because dolphins can’t chew. Instead, their teeth are used to grip prey, according to Whale and Dolphin Conservation. Sometimes, they’ll shake their food or rub it on the ocean floor to tear it into more manageable pieces. One theory for why they’ve evolved to do away with chewing is because they need to quickly consume fish before dinner can swim away. Skipping the process of chewing ensures their meal doesn’t escape.
4. Dolphins have worked for the Navy since the 1960s
The idea of dolphins being employed by the military to scan harbors for enemy swimmers or pinpoint the location of underwater mines may seem like the plot of a B-rated movie, but it’s true — and has been for decades.
Since the 1960s, the U.S. Navy has been utilizing dolphins and training them to detect underwater mines. Much the same way bomb-detecting dogs work by using smell, dolphins work by using echolocation. Their superior ability to scan an area for particular objects allows them to zero in on mines and drop a marker at the spot. The Navy can then go in and disarm the mine. The echolocation abilities of dolphins far outstrip any technology people have come up with to do the same job.
Dolphins are also used to alert the Navy to the presence of enemies in harbors. There has also been much speculation about other uses of dolphins for the military, including claims they train them to kill people or plant explosives on ships. None of this has been confirmed by the military. Still, animal activists have long opposed the use of dolphins for military purposes.
5. Dolphins teach their young how to use tools
Dolphins possess several behaviors that are passed down from one generation to the next. (Photo: Joost van Uffelen/Shutterstock)
Researchers discovered that a population of dolphins living in Shark Bay, Australia, use tools, and they pass that knowledge down from mother to daughter. The behavior is called “sponging,” and the researchers found it was not only the first instance of tool use in cetaceans, but it was also evidence of culture among non-humans, according to research published by Eric M. Patterson and Janet Mann in the journal PLOS ONE.
Individuals in this small group of dolphins search for several minutes to find cone-shaped sea sponges. They tear this sea sponge free of the ocean floor, then carry it on their beaks to a hunting ground where they use it to probe the sand for hiding fish. The researchers think this helps protect their sensitive snouts while they hunt.
6. Dolphins form friendships through shared interests
This particular group of dolphins in Shark Bay have been keeping researchers busy over the years, revealing information about group culture and social habits.
Researchers from the universities of Bristol, Zurich and Western Australia discovered that the Shark Bay dolphins form friendships based on a shared interest — in this case, the sponge-hunting habit. This tool-using characteristic was found primarily in female dolphins, but by studying the behavior of the few male dolphins that exhibited the behavior, the researchers saw something new: relationships formed over shared tool technique.
“Foraging with a sponge is a time-consuming and largely solitary activity so it was long thought incompatible with the needs of male dolphins in Shark Bay — to invest time in forming close alliances with other males. This study suggests that, like their female counterparts and indeed like humans, male dolphins form social bonds based on shared interests,” Dr. Simon Allen, a co-author of the study and senior research associate at Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences, told Phys.org.
Dolphins have names and respond when called. Dolphins within pods have their own “signature whistle,” just like a name, and other dolphins can use that special whistle to get the attention of their pod mates. Considering dolphins are a highly social species with the need to stay in touch over distances, it makes sense they would have evolved to use “names” much the same way people do.
According to the BBC, researchers followed a group of wild bottlenose dolphins, recording their signature whistles and then playing the calls back to the dolphins.
“The researchers found that individuals only responded to their own calls, by sounding their whistle back. The team believes the dolphins are acting like humans: when they hear their name, they answer.”
What’s more, they don’t respond when the signature whistles of dolphins from strange pods are played, showing that they’re looking for and responding to specific information within whistles. The research opens up whole new questions about the extent of dolphin vocabulary, and it also could reveal clues about the evolution of our own language skills.
Male dolphins synchronize their calls when they work together as a team, a behavior once thought to be unique to humans. (Photo: bluehand/Shutterstock)
More recent research takes this idea of cooperative communication even further. A team of researchers from Bristol University found that male dolphins don’t just synchronize their calls; they work together as a team, and attribute previously thought to unique to humans.
In describing the behavior of male dolphins as they work together to herd female dolphins, the researchers saw cooperative rather than competitive behavior, which is especially unusual in terms of finding a mate.
We know that pufferfish have strong toxins. Apparently dolphins know this too, and they use this for recreational benefit.
Normally, pufferfish toxin is deadly. However, in small doses the toxin acts like a narcotic. BBC filmed dolphins gently playing with a pufferfish, passing it between pod members for 20 to 30 minutes, then hanging around at the surface seemingly mesmerized by their own reflections.
Rob Pilley, a zoologist who also worked as a producer on the series, was quoted in The Independent: “This was a case of young dolphins purposely experimenting with something we know to be intoxicating … It reminded us of that craze a few years ago when people started licking toads to get a buzz, especially the way they hung there in a daze afterwards. It was the most extraordinary thing to see.”
Apparently humans aren’t the only species to knowingly dabble in strange substances to achieve an altered state of mind.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information since it was first published in June 2016.
The Alarming Truth About “Swim with the Dolphins” Programs
October 14, 2013
By Dr. Becker
From the outside looking in, swim-with-the-dolphin (SWTD) programs appear to be a fun, safe opportunity for people to interact with one of the most appealing animals on the planet, the dolphin.
Upon closer inspection, however, like so many wild animal attractions designed by humans for humans, SWTD programs are bad news for dolphins (and they’re not all that safe for people, either). Dolphins are uniquely unsuited to captivity for a variety of reasons including their social structure and natural drive to swim long distances, dive down hundreds of feet, and spend most of their time underwater.
SWTD attractions in countries outside the U.S. pose an even bigger problem due to lack of regulation and poor conditions. Abuses include dolphins kept in small pools surrounded by jagged, rusty fences or near sewage outfalls, diets of rotten fish, disease, and starvation.
Wild SWTD programs are also a bad idea. Studies show that the presence of tourist boats and swimmers among wild dolphin populations is incredibly stressful for the animals, preventing them from resting, feeding, and caring for their young.
If you’re interested in the welfare of dolphins and want to help, avoid SWTD programs, and also consider avoiding resorts, cruise lines and other businesses that promote the exploitation of dolphins for entertainment purposes.
By Dr. Becker
In recent years, “swim-with-the-dolphin” adventures have become increasingly popular with resort-goers and vacationers visiting tropical ports aboard cruise ships.
If you don’t think too deeply about it, a swim-with-the-dolphin (SWTD) experience may seem like a unique, harmless way to get an up-close look at some of the world’s most intelligent, fun-loving sea mammals.
But what many people don’t know or haven’t considered is that most attractions designed to expose humans to wild creatures don’t enhance the lives of the animals involved. Sadly, this includes the SWTD industry. And not only are these programs bad for dolphins, they aren’t entirely safe for people, either.
Dolphins Are Exceptionally Incompatible with Captive Environments
Dolphins have evolved to live and thrive as wild sea mammals — not within the confines of an exhibition tank or a sea pen built into an artificial lagoon.
Dolphins in the wild live in large groups called pods, often in close family units. Social bonds are meaningful and long lasting — sometimes for a lifetime. Captive dolphins, on the other hand, spend their lives interacting with a handful of unfamiliar dolphins that appear and disappear at the whim of the humans running the show.
Wild dolphins often travel long distances each day. They may swim in a straight line for a hundred miles, move along a coastline for several miles and then swim back to their starting point, or they may spend several hours or days in a certain spot. Dolphins living in captivity swim in a circle around a tank or within the small confines of some other artificial habitat. Caged dolphins are often seen swimming around and around in their tanks, peering through the glass or other barricade, or floating listlessly on the water’s surface. These behaviors indicate boredom and psychological stress.
In the ocean, dolphins can dive down several hundred feet and can remain underwater for 15 minutes or more. They spend only a small amount of time – 10 to 20 percent – on the surface. Captive dolphins, sadly, spend up to 80 percent of their time at the surface of the water waiting for food or attention.
According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS):
“The sea is to dolphins much as the air is to birds—it is a three-dimensional environment, where they can move up and down and side to side. But dolphins don’t stop to perch. They never come to shore. Dolphins are always swimming, even when they “sleep.” They are always aware, and always moving.
Understanding this, it is difficult to imagine the tragedy of life in captivity for these ocean creatures.”
Imprisoning Wildlife for the ‘Benefit’ of Humans
There are from 14 to 18 swim-with-the-dolphin attractions in the U.S. The marketing of these programs promotes the experience as “eco-friendly” and “educational.”
There are also so-called “dolphin-assisted therapy” programs for children and adults with disorders like Down’s syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, head and spinal injuries, or cancer. In fact, there is no scientific data to indicate that interacting with dolphins has any greater therapeutic benefit than programs involving dogs, horses, or other domesticated animals. As the HSUS accurately points out, “There is no need to imprison wildlife to benefit humans.”
Swim-with-the-dolphins operations in other countries pose an even bigger problem due to lack of regulation and poor conditions. Abuses cited by the HSUS include overworked pregnant female dolphins; dolphins kept in small pools surrounded by jagged, rusty fences or near sewage outfalls; diets of rotten fish; disease; and starvation.
Most SWTD programs outside the U.S. capture their dolphins from the wild. Not only is this practice extremely traumatic for wild dolphins, often resulting in a life-threatening condition known as capture stress or capture myopathy, it can also have a negative impact on the pods from which the dolphins are taken.
SWTD Programs Pose Health Risks to Both Humans and Dolphins
Some captive dolphins will attempt to assimilate to their environment by looking to humans to take on the roles normally filled by other dolphins in the pod. Some of the behaviors noted include submission or sexual aggression around humans, as well as agitation and aggressive behavior resulting from the stress of forced interaction.
These behaviors can result in serious danger to swimmers, and in fact, SWTD programs have reported injuries to humans including tooth rakes, lacerations, broken bones, internal injuries and shock.
For the dolphins, unnatural exposure to people can result in human bacterial and viral infections, and stress-related conditions like ulcers.
Swimming with Wild Dolphins Is Also a Bad Idea
A study conducted in 2010 of bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Tanzania1 found that SWTD programs in the wild are also highly traumatic for the dolphins, preventing them from resting, feeding, and caring for their young. Tourists swimming very close and trying to touch the dolphins proved incredibly stressful for the animals.
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Bottlenose dolphins swimming. Analysis of a dolphin hunting technique suggests the animals may be natural math geniuses. Corbis
Dolphins may use complex nonlinear mathematics when hunting, according to a new study that suggests these brainy marine mammals could be far more skilled at math than was ever thought possible before.
Inspiration for the new study, published in the latest Proceedings of the Royal Society A, came after lead author Tim Leighton watched an episode of the Discovery Channel’s “Blue Planet” series and saw dolphins blowing multiple tiny bubbles around prey as they hunted.
“I immediately got hooked, because I knew that no man-made sonar would be able to operate in such bubble water,” explained Leighton, a professor of ultrasonics and underwater acoustics at the University of Southampton, where he is also an associate dean.
“These dolphins were either ‘blinding’ their most spectacular sensory apparatus when hunting — which would be odd, though they still have sight to reply on — or they have a sonar that can do what human sonar cannot…Perhaps they have something amazing,” he added.
Leighton and colleagues Paul White and student Gim Hwa Chua set out to determine what the amazing ability might be. They started by modeling the types of echolocation pulses that dolphins emit. The researchers processed them using nonlinear mathematics instead of the standard way of processing sonar returns. The technique worked, and could explain how dolphins achieve hunting success with bubbles.
The math involved is complex. Essentially it relies upon sending out pulses that vary in amplitude. The first may have a value of 1 while the second is 1/3 that amplitude.
“So, provided the dolphin remembers what the ratios of the two pulses were, and can multiply the second echo by that and add the echoes together, it can make the fish ‘visible’ to its sonar,” Leighton told Discovery News. “This is detection enhancement.”
But that’s not all. There must be a second stage to the hunt.
“Bubbles cause false alarms because they scatter strongly and a dolphin cannot afford to waste its energy chasing false alarms while the real fish escape,” Leighton explained.
The second stage then involves subtracting the echoes from one another, ensuring the echo of the second pulse is first multiplied by three. The process, in short, therefore first entails making the fish visible to sonar by addition. The fish is then made invisible by subtraction to confirm it is a true target.
In order to confirm that dolphins use such nonlinear mathematical processing, some questions must still be answered. For example, for this technique to work, dolphins would have to use a frequency when they enter bubbly water that is sufficiently low, permitting them to hear frequencies that are twice as high in pitch.
“Until measurements are taken of wild dolphin sonar as they hunt in bubbly water, these questions will remain unanswered,” Leighton said. “What we have shown is that it is not impossible to distinguish targets in bubbly water using the same sort of pulses that dolphins use.”
If replicated, the sonar model may prove to be a huge benefit to humans. It might be able to detect covert circuitry, such as bugging devices hidden in walls, stones or foliage. It could also dramatically improve detection of sea mines.
“Currently, the navy uses dolphins or divers feeling with their hands in such difficult conditions as near shore bubbly water, for example in the Gulf,” he said.
In terms of dolphin math skills, prior studies conducted by the Dolphin Research Cetner in Florida have already determined that dolphins grasp various numerical concepts, such as recognizing and representing numerical values on an ordinal scale. Marine biologist Laela Sayigh of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said, “In the wild, it would be very useful (for dolphins) to keep track of which areas were richer food sources.”
While dolphins are among the animal kingdom’s most intelligent animals, they are not likely the only math champs.
Parrots, chimpanzees and even pigeons have been shown to have an advanced understanding of numerical concepts. The studies together indicate that math ability is inborn in many species, with number sense, mathematical skills and verbal ability perhaps being separate talents in humans that we later learn to combine.
LIMA, April 22 (UPI) — Scientists say they are investigating the mysterious deaths of 877 dolphins washed ashore in Peru this year, many in advanced states of decomposition.
Peruvian Deputy Environmental Minister Gabriel Quijandria said an outbreak of Morbillivirus or Brucella bacteria could have been the cause. However, results of a histopathological analysis — which would determine whether contamination was the culprit — are expected in the coming days. Starvation, poisoning or interactions with fisheries have been ruled out as causes of death.
More than 80 percent of the dolphins washed ashore were in advanced states of decomposition, making it more difficult to determine the causes of death.
CNN reports the deaths are part of a worldwide trend. The International Fund for Animal Welfare said in February alone, 108 dead dolphins washed ashore in Cape Cod. Amateur video showed more than 30 dolphins washing ashore in Rio de Janeiro in March, which were later safely returned to the sea.
Killer whale and Weddell seal.
CREDIT: Robert Pitman/NOAA
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Orcas mourn their dead, right whales have accents and dolphins like to have fun (and they “talk” in their sleep). Because of their special intelligence and culture, marine mammals should have their own set of rights, researchers attending the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting here said.
“Because of their cultural sophistication these are enormously vulnerable individuals,” said Lori Marino, who studies brain and behavioral evolution in mammals at Emory University in Atlanta. “We have all the evidence to show that there is an egregious mismatch between how cetaceans are and how they are perceived and still treated by our species.”
Giving rights to cetaceans, the name for the group of marine mammals that includes dolphins and whales, would allow them better treatment under the law, including making sure they have healthy habitats and enough food to hunt and survive, as well as getting them out of captivity.
Scientists point to a few qualities of marine mammals when suggesting the animals deserve some basic rights: they are self-aware, display complex intelligence and even have culture.
“These characteristics are shared with our own species, we recognize them,” Marino said. “All of these characteristics make it ethically inconsistent to deny the basic rights of cetaceans.”
And what do they mean by “basic rights?”
“When we talk about rights, that’s a shorthand way to talk about the fundamental needs of a being,” Thomas White, of Loyola Marymount University in California, said at the symposium. He also draws the difference between “human” and “person,” similar to how philosophers distinguish the two: A human is a biological idea — Homo sapiens, to be specific, while in philosophy, a person is a being of any species with a particular set of characteristics that deserves special treatment. [10 Things That Make Humans Special]
“You have to have a species-appropriate understanding of rights,” White said. These include the basic set of conditions for growth, development, flourishingand even a rudimentary sense of satisfaction in life.
The researchers noted some areas where humans are stripping these animals of their rights. For instance, by keeping them in captivity we are exploiting their right to live in their natural environment without human interference, and taking away their right to physical and mental health, Marino said, adding, “The effects of captivity are well known. These animals suffer from stress and disease in captivity. Many captive dolphins and orcas show physical and behavioral indications of stress.” (Some endangered animals are kept in captivity for specially designed breeding programs meant to protect their population from extinction.)
The meeting comes on the heels of a recent ruling in a San Diego court that animals such as whales and dolphins don’t have human rights, shutting down a lawsuit from the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who had claimed that SeaWorld’s orcas were slaves. PETA claimed that the park broke the 13th Amendment of the Constitution — banning slavery — by forcing their animals, specifically the orcas, to work against their will for the financial gain of their owners.
San Diego District Judge Jeffrey Miller dismissed the case before the hearing even began. “As ‘slavery’ and ‘involuntary servitude’ are uniquely human activities,” he explained in his decision on Feb. 8, “there is simply no basis to construe the Thirteenth Amendment as applying to non-humans.”
His statement makes clear, Marino pointed out, why she and others are fighting for “person” status for marine mammals. “Without obtaining legal status as a person in the law there’s nowhere to go and there’s nothing that judge could have done in that PETA case, even if he wanted to,” Marino said. Before we start asking for legal action, she said, we need to get these animals their basic rights.
The fisherman who caught the shark is keeping his specimen.
CREDIT: Marcela Bejarano
As the year draws to a close, here’s a look back at some of the weirdest animal discoveries of 2011. From transvestite birds to zombie caterpillars and our own set of animal superheroes, it’s been a wacky ride.
This year started with a bang as scores of birds fell from the skies in January. The “aflockalypse” as it became called, harkened back for many to their first time watching Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thriller “The Birds,” but experts agreed that the birds’ and fish’s mass deaths were just coincidental.
It started with the mysterious deaths of thousands of blackbirds in Arkansas and Louisiana around New Years’ eve; this was followed by several reports of dead fish washing ashore and many more “massive” animal die-offs. In the end, the bang with which it all started was probably fireworks, which initially killed the blackbirds. Researchers agree the best explanation so far is the fireworks’ noise and lights may have scared or disoriented the birds, causing them to fatally injure themselves flying into buildings, water towers and trees. The wide pickup of the original blackbird story probably set off the media attention later stories received, but these kind of die-offs are normal, researchers and ecologists say.
#2. Zombie Ants
The year was a big one for zombie insects. Reports of mind-controlled ants and caterpillars were enough to creep out even the least squeamish.
In May, in the journal BMC Ecology, researcher David Hughes from Pennsylvania State University reported that a parasitic fungus infects forest ants to fulfill its bidding. The fungus fills the ant’s head with fungal cells and changes its muscles so the ant can grab a leaf in a death grip just when and where the fungus wants it — specifically, the zombie ants all bite down around noon, then all die together around sunset, like some weird fungus-addled ant cult. The fungus then bursts out of the ants’ heads and spreads its spores to its next unwitting victim.
Another report in September found the genetic culprit that sends caterpillars to the treetops, where they liquefy and rain infectious death down on their peers. The virus that zombifies these gypsy moth caterpillars also makes sure they grow as large as possible so they spread infectious viruses far and wide, said study researcher Kelli Hoover, of Pennsylvania State University. They also send the caterpillars crawling up trees in the middle of the day, when they are most vulnerable to bird attacks.
#3. The mouse with two dads
In a wacky feat of genetic engineering and a stem-cell switcheroo, researchers created the first mouse baby from the genes of two male mice — a mouse that literally has two dads. The mousey Dr. Frankensteins, from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, turned cells from Dad No. 1 into X-only stem cells, which they injected into an egg to make a female mouse, which was then fertilized by sperm from Dad No. 2.
The study, published in the journal Biology of Reproduction, is the first step to making human children from two men, though that is a long way away. This mean feat of genetic engineering was also dubbed by LiveScience reporter Stephanie Pappas as “scientific progress at its cutest” when she met the mice in person.
#4. Animals with superhero senses
Scientists aren’t the only ones turning miraculous tricks this year. Mother Nature has a few up her sleeve as well. Animal super senses turned up in dolphins and vampire bats in 2011, and even one possible sixth sense in humans made an appearance.
Researchers at Rostock University in Germany discovered that the common Guiana dolphin has a special sixth sense: It can sense electric fields with a special organ on its snout. While the ability is common in fish, the dolphins are the first placental mammal (as opposed to a marsupial mammal) found to sense electricity, which they probably use to find fish in the shallow, murky waters they call home.
In other odd animal senses, researchers discovered in August that the vampire bat can “see” heat from veins and arteries using a special organ on its nose that is incredibly sensitive to heat. The bat uses this organ to find blood meals and to bite the right part of the skin: A mouthful of hair is unappetizing to these little bloodthirsty critters.
A possible extra human sense also made an appearance this year. A human protein, when expressed in fruit flies, has the ability to detect magnetic fields. The researchers caution that the protein might not work that way in humans, though. Sorry, Magneto wannabees.
#5. Strange sperm
It may not be super, but strange sperm abounds in the animal kingdom.
Studies in naked mole rat sperm show that these weird little creatures also have weird little sperm. In any other animals their sperm samples wouldn’t pass quality control, but these eusocial underground rodents make do just fine with their mutant sperm, a study published in the December issue of the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology shows.
Ducks also have special sperm properties, another 2011 study shows. Their sperm contains antibiotics that might protect them and their mates from sexually transmitted infections. The brighter their bill is, the better their sperm is at killing off bacterial invaders, suggests the study published in April in the journal Biology Letters.
#6. More strange sex
Sperm wasn’t the only weird animal-sex finding of 2011. Multiple studies found everything from hermaphroditic bulldogs to sexually confused fish and birds.
The bulldog Bijou is genetically female, but has some physical properties of a male dog, including a prostate gland and testicles. Researchers are stumped as to why this pup, and another bulldog, Tana, had these male characteristics without male genes.
Other animal he-shes are also stumping researchers this year: A cardinal with half-male, half-female coloring seems to be a genetic anomaly, with half-female and half-male cells. Several sex-changing birds also made the news in 2011, including a female chicken that transformed into a rooster in the United Kingdom over a few weeks time. Researchers think that a tumor or cyst may have caused the switch.
Some birds of prey don female plumage, but don’t actually change gender. These transvestite marsh harriers use such sexual mimicry to fool other males into leaving them alone, researchers reported this year.
#7. Cyclops shark
Strange sex-changing animals weren’t the only weirdoes nature threw at us this year. A Photoshop-quality image of a fetal shark with one eye stunned researchers and cybergawkers alike when it made the news in October. The one-eyed fetus was cut from the belly of a shark in the Gulf of California, but would not likely have survived outside of the womb.
“This is extremely rare,” shark expert Felipe Galvan Magana of Mexico’s Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias del Mar told the Pisces Fleet Sportfishing blog in July. “As far as I know, less than 50 examples of an abnormality like this have been recorded.” [Photos of Cyclops Shark]
Other, less scientifically based reports of Yeti nest sightings and hair samples from Russia splashed the news this year. And scientists reported finding the lair of a ‘Kraken’ sea monster, though the interpretation of the finding has not been substantiated.
#8. Fishy sexual harassment
Several advancements in the field of fishy sexual harassment made the news this year, indicating that Trinidadian guppies seem to have more gossipy drama and sexual tension than an episode of “Sex in the City.”
A study published in October showed that when a harassing male chases down female guppies, they are more likely to get in fights with other females. The sexually charged males stress these females out so much they end up turning on each other, the researchers said.
Another study showed that these same guppies, when harassed, pair up with prettier females, whose presence draws attention away from themselves.
#9. Animals with protective poisons
Scientists have long understood that plants use poison to defend themselves, but traditionally animals are thought to defend themselves with weapons like sharp teeth and claws. In 2011, a number of animals were discovered to wield poisons of their own.
By utilizing the same plants that African tribesmen use to poison their arrows, the furry fury known as the African crested rat can incapacitate and even kill predators many times its size, research published in August found. The rat chews poisonous bark and spits the poison onto its furt coat, which has specialized hairs with pores to absorb the animal’s poisonous spit, which protects them against predators like dogs.
Another odd animal poison discovered in 2011 is the cyanide-sweating millipede discovered in September. When disturbed, the bugs emit a toxic cyanide goo and foul-tasting chemicals that deter predators looking for a snack. Luckily for its predators this odd insect also has a nighttime glow to warn predators of its poisonous secretions
#10. The loudest genitals
One loud little insect makes a big call, from an unorthodox organ. Research published in July indicates that by using its genitals, the water boatman makes the loudest song for its size: At less than one-tenth of an inch (2.3 millimeters) long, it calls out to mates at over 99 decibels, as loud as an orchestra. The odd insect’s song from the depths of a river can even be heard along its banks, the researchers said, and is likely created when the animal rubs its genitals against ridges on its body, though the scientists aren’t sure how the sound gets so loud.
Dolphins “talk” to each other, using the same process to make their high-pitched sounds as humans, according to a new analysis of results from a 1970s experiment.
The findings mean dolphins don’t actually whistle as has been long thought, but instead rely on vibrations of tissues in their nasal cavities that are analogous to our vocal cords.
Scientists are only now figuring this out, “because it certainly sounds like a whistle,” said study researcher Peter Madsen of the Institute of Bioscience at Aarhus University in Denmark, adding that the term was coined in a paper published in 1949 in the journal Science. “And it has stuck since
The finding clears up a question that has long puzzled scientists: How can dolphins make their signature identifying whistles at the water’s surface and during deep dives where compression causes sound waves to travel faster and would thus change the frequency of those calls.
To answer that question, Madsen and his colleagues analyzed recently digitized recordings of a 12-year-old male bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) from 1977. At the time, the researchers had the dolphin breathe a mixture of helium and oxygen called heliox. (Used by humans, heliox makes one sound like Donald Duck.)
The heliox was meant to mimic conditions during a deep dive since it causes a shift up in frequency. When breathing air or heliox, the male dolphin, however, continued to make the same whistles, with the same frequency.
Rather than vocal cords, the dolphins likely use tissue vibrations in their nasal cavities to produce their “whistles,” which aren’t true whistles after all. The researchers suggest structures in the nasal cavity, called phonic lips, are responsible for the sound.
The dolphins aren’t actually talking, though.
“It does not mean that they talk like humans, only that they communicate with sound made in the same way,” Madsen told LiveScience.
“Cetean ancestors lived on land some 40 million years ago and made sounds with vocal folds in their larynx,” Madsen said, referring to the group of mammals to which dolphins belong. “They lost that during the adaptations to a fully aquatic lifestyle, but evolved sound production in the nose that functions like that of vocal folds.”
This vocal ability also likely gives dolphins a broader range of sounds.
Dolphin Studies Could Reveal Secrets of Extraterrestrial Intelligence
Keith Cooper, Astrobiology Magazine
Date: 02 September 2011 Time: 01:49 PM ET
Analysis of dolphin communication with Information Theory has shown it to be surprisingly intricate and possibly second only to human communication in terms of complexity on Earth.
CREDIT: Wild Dolphin Project.
How do we define intelligence? SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, clearly equates intelligence with technology (or, more precisely, the building of radio or laser beacons). Some, such as the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, suggested that intelligence wasn’t just the acquisition of technology, but the ability to develop and improve it, integrating it into our society.
By that definition, a dolphin, lacking limbs to create and manipulate complex tools, cannot possibly be described as intelligent. It’s easy to see why such definitions prove popular; we are clearly the smartest creatures on the planet, and the only species with technology. It may be human hubris, or some kind of anthropocentric bias that we find difficult to escape from, but our adherence to this definition narrows the phase space in which we’re willing to search for intelligent life.
Technology is certainly linked to intelligence – you need to be smart to build a computer or an aircraft or a radio telescope – but technology does not define intelligence. It is just a manifestation of it, perhaps one of many.
Astrobiologists see intelligence a little differently. The dictionary defines intelligence as the ability to learn, while others see it as the capacity to reason, to empathize, to solve problems and consider complex ideas, and to interact socially.
Intelligence in the universe
If we take these characteristics to be a broad working definition of intelligence, our view of intelligent life in the universe suddenly looks very different. No longer are we confined to considering only life that has technology.
To be fair to SETI, at this moment in time it cannot search for anything other than beacons – the vast distances across the cosmos coupled with our own baby steps into the Universe mean that we don’t have the capability to search for any other form of intelligent life other than those that can deliberately signal their presence. However, what a wider definition of intelligence tells us is that we are not alone, not even on our own planet Earth.
Professor Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist from the University of Oxford, was one of the first to put forward the theory that the evolution of intelligence is driven by social factors, allowing animals to survive, interact and prosper in large and complex social groupings. These include notions of reciprocal altruism (I scratch your back, you scratch mine), politics (forming sub-groups and coalitions within the larger group) and understanding the emotions of others (empathy, which in turn relies on theory of mind, the ability to be aware of one’s self and others).
Looking at it that way, modern social networking on media such as Facebook may just be a symptom of what helped drive us to become intelligent in the first place, many tens of thousands of years ago.
Here’s the trick – to be social, you must be communicative. Staying quiet is anti-social. Personal interactions require communication, of some form, and the more complex the interaction, the more complex the communication. So if intelligence and social behavior is linked – and many people agree that it is – then the best place to start looking for intelligence is in animals that like to chat with one another.