Thursday, July 30, 2009

Whales are even more amazing than we thought

An article in the Daily Mail by the author of a new book on whales makes some rather extraordinary, but soundly-argued claims about whales and their abilities. Here's an excerpt.

We find whales and dolphins endlessly fascinating not only for their innate beauty, but because we know them to be intelligent creatures. And the more we learn about them, the more marvellous and intriguing they become.

Experiments conducted around the world have shown that they cannot only respond to spoken commands, but (almost uniquely among the animal kingdom) can recognise themselves in a mirror, and even in pictures held up against the glass wall of aquariums.

This displays a degree of intelligence and self-awareness that is truly awesome - and raises awkward questions about the morality of keeping animals such as these in cramped water parks, where they have no freedom to express their natural behaviour, however miraculous it may be to observe.

I have been privileged enough to see that intelligence on display in the wild. For the past eight years, I've watched and studied whales for my book, Leviathan. I've seen many different species, from the tiny harbour porpoise, barely bigger than a rugby ball, to the huge fin whale, which, at 85ft, is only just smaller than a blue whale.

I've seen humpback whales leap into the air, launching their entire 50ft bodies out of the water. I've even swum with sperm whales, close enough to feel their sonar (the sound waves they emit) reverberating through my skeleton like an MRI scan. It was almost as if they knew their place in the world - and mine. And that may not be as far-fetched as it sounds.

Sperm whale. (Image courtesy of Max N. via e-mail.)

... the crucial point, says Dr Whitehead, is the complexity of the animal's neo- cortex - a highly developed part of the brain which, in humans and primates, is known to be the centre of intelligent thought, memory and speech.

Dr Whitehead's studies show that cetaceans have the ability to solve problems, to exhibit joy and grief, and live in complex societies.

That would have come as no surprise to the whale-hunters of centuries past, who often saw the emotions expressed by their quarry. A harpooned sperm whale, for instance, would soon find its mates rushing to its aid, even if it resulted in their own death.

It may even be that cetaceans have a sense of altruism. For example, the tusked narwhal of the Arctic have been observed to use the tips of their own tusks to plug the aching gap in another's broken tusk to help ease the pain.

Narwhals 'tusking'. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

... even more extraordinary is the theory put forward by Russian scientists in the Seventies. They concluded that sperm whales have a 'third eye'.

They suggested that the animal's spermaceti organ, housed in its bulging forehead or nose, works as a 'video-acoustic system', transferring sound energy into images.

I think I can confirm that from my own experience. When I swam with sperm whales, I felt that they were recreating my shape in their own head; that they had the measure of me. In the silent choreography of the sea, a new balance was being struck. I was no longer in control. In that profound environment, it was the whales who were the master species.

Which brings us to a final tantalising prospect. If you are an animal with that kind of intellectual capacity, what do you do with your brain? After feeding, and mating, what else is there to think about?

Dr Whitehead's research indicates that sperm whales use their almost telepathic ability to communicate for what he calls 'cultural transmission', passing on information from generation to generation.

Could it even be, as Dr Whitehead suggests, in his most astounding proposition, that sperm whales might even rationalise about their place in the world? That they might even have evolved some kind of religion? This theory might seem extreme, but we are still in the infancy of whale studies.

We know more about the surface of the Moon than we do about their environment, the ocean.

There are still entire species of large deep-sea whales, such as beaked whales, which have never been seen alive, and are known only from dead specimens. Scientists speculate that there are other whale species yet to be discovered.

There's much more at the link. Fascinating reading, and highly recommended. I note that Mr. Hoare's book, Leviathan, won the Samuel Johnson prize this year. I'll be adding it to my 'books to buy' list, that's for sure! (And no, I don't get any commission on it - I just like to recommend books that capture my imagination.)



Jim March said...

And this one is a hero:

YoelB said...

Think of all the information you can get from medical ultrasound. Whatever cetacean society might be like, there's probably none of what we think of as privacy personal space. At all. What you just ate? Whether you haven't moved your bowels? Sexual arousal? Had a stroke? Everybody knows.

LabRat said...

I found my last visit to Sea World profoundly unsettling. On one level I was fascinated to see such creatures in the flesh, on another I couldn't stop thinking on what I knew about dolphins and orcas and their lives as extremely intelligent social predators... and was ashamed to have paid to be there.

The dolphins in their tank are *covered* with scars, all from social aggression. Agonistic interactions are as common to dolphins as they are to primates or canines, but not to that degree...