Sunday, December 13, 2009

Have A Heart SeaWorld, And Let Corky Go Home

Picture It is time to bring the captives home, read more on our Seattle P.I. blogsite!

Corky (Courtesy OrcaNetwork and OrcaLab)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Where Do Orcas Find Drinking Water?

Orcas are beautifully adapted to life in the marine environment, but unlike fish, they are not able to meet their water needs by drinking seawaterFind out how they meet their needs here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

New Orca Calf 11/11/09

New Baby!
Please check the website's news page for more information on J pod's new addition!  

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Vote For Orcas and Salmon

Photo by Stewart Macintyre
Please consider the orcas if you have yet to vote. I-1033

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Senator Murray is Beginning to Listen to You on Orca issues

If nothing else, the proposed Killer Whale Vessel Regulations have served to show how strong our community is in supporting the Southern Resident Orcas. Please read the blog at the Seattle P.I. for more information:

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Farmed Salmon Are Really Bad News - For Us, for Wild or Captive Orcas, and for the Environment

Included in a serving of farmed salmon are 14 known toxins in much greater concentrations than wild caught salmon.

Click on over to our blog at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to learn why you should avoid eating this product, and why fish farming is harmful to the orcas (including the captive orca "Lolita"):

Monday, August 31, 2009

Friday, August 28, 2009

Dophins Often Protect Us

By now, most of us have read stories or heard tales of dolphins coming to the rescue of swimmers and divers, and I thought this would be a good time to share some insights. We are now being asked to reconsider the impact that we have on the local orca population, and on October 27th our window for discussing the proposed guidelines for vessels and orcas will close. Hopefully we will come to understand the reasons and value of that increased protection - one of which is the mysterious nature of the whales themselves.

The bottom line is that for many species of dolphins, porpoises, and whales, their survival depends upon their maintaining group unity and culture, and for some dolphins this leads to demonstrations of compassion towards other species. Last year a dolphin led two beached Pygmy sperm whales to safety, an event which was somewhat astonishing and to my knowledge has not been recorded before.

But I got to thinking about it; this rescue occurred by a dolphin who enjoys being in the company of humans, and would therefore feel safe in coming to the aid of the whales when people were around. So possibly dolphins help species other than their own with some regularity but because they might fear us, or because it happens where we are not around, we just have not been fortunate enough to witness such occurrences.

Or maybe we just don't notice.

I saw the following video clip right before going to Hawaii a while back, and it gave me pause. Already phobic about sharks, seeing this did freak me out a bit, but ultimately having watched it help me to put my fear in perspective and I was able to swim with dolphins and turtles and celebrate the experience (however I did stay alert!). So a gentle warning, it might spook you if you have a vivid imagination. Not recommended for kids either. The titles are in French - essentially they describe the events as seen, which involved a Tiger shark.

For the most part, the people were unaware of the event as it unfolded, and it does make you wonder how often dolphins protect us and we never know.

Currently there is a movie out called "The Cove", which documents the slaughter of dolphins by a nation concerned with competition for fish with the animals, (coupled with a desire to eat the dolphins, it would seem). Yet I wonder how many times people in that nation may have received assistance from dolphins. Certainly, there are no records of unprovoked attacks on humans by dolphins.

I am proud to live in a part of the world where such barbarism is not allowed, and where we have evolved an attitude of seeking to achieve balance in how we relate to the Earth and the other beings that share the planet. We are learning to take a step back from conflict and seek solutions, and I am confident that we can come up with positive outcomes for everyone while protecting our local orcas and the waterways where they live.

The proposed federal guidelines for vessels and orcas can be found here, and we have provided links as well.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Orca Cultures

While researching how our southern resident orcas hunt and capture fish, I came upon an interesting article that shows that the northern resident orcas (which live in British Columbia waters, generally north of the Fraser River) alter their hunting strategy depending upon prey availability, and that this is tied into large scale climatic variability. But when I checked to see if the southern residents showed a similar pattern, I encountered a really different, and surprising pattern.

According to a thesis, the local orcas don't seem to change their strategy in relation to climatic changes, but do extend the range and effort required to find adequate prey when it is scarce. And not all the pods showed the same changes in the same circumstances.

What is surprising is that the orcas did not concentrate their hunting efforts where salmon were most abundant, as measured by the capture rate by fishing boats. In other words, where fishermen had the most success was not necessarily where the orcas chose to hunt...although it became a 'chicken or egg' issue - did the fishermen have more success because the orcas weren't there? Or were there other features of the environment that were less desirable for the orcas at those places? Is there an aspect of the killer whale's culture at play, since they are different even from their "cousins" north of the border?

I looked at some other populations of fish-eating orcas, and again I found interesting variations between areas. When hunting herring, a population of orcas in Norway has

School of Herring (Creative Commons Photo)
been observed to keep schools of the fish near the surface. The whales flash their white undersides towards the fish and emit bubbles, which has the effect of driving the fish school to form into a 'ball'. The orcas then strike at the herring school with their tails, stunning and killing the fish, which the whales then eat one at a time. (I had no idea that herring can get to be 18" long!)

In Iceland, another population of orcas feeds very similarly upon herring, but in addition to emitting the bubbles the whales produce a loud droning type sound, possibly to help confuse and further compress the fish school (for video and a soundtrack, go here).

In the Russian waters of Avacha Gulf, orcas force tight schools of mackerel in a similar fashion, but then take turns swimming into the middle of the fish 'ball'.

In and around the Mediterranean Sea, a population of orcas hunts bluefin tuna (which are huge, 620 lbs is spawning size) by chasing them until the fish becomes exhausted...and in more recent times the whales have learned how to strip a fish from fishermen's long lines as the tuna are brought up from depth. Annoying to the fishermen, perhaps, who receive thousands of dollars per fish, but a sensible adaptation from the whales' point of view.

The following is from comments sent to me by Howard Garrett (see previous post), of OrcaNetwork, which speaks to the varied ways the orcas live and find fish:

When Rendell and Whitehead wrote Culture in Whales and Dolphins (2001) they summed up the findings that each orca community eats its own severely restricted diet, uses their own discrete repertoire of vocalizations, and maintains their own prescribed mating practices. The paper, published in the Journal of Behavioural and Brain Sciences, established that: "The complex and stable vocal and behavioural cultures of sympatric groups of killer whales (Orcinus orca) appear to have no parallel outside humans and represent an independent evolution of cultural faculties."

But they didn't want to venture any guesses about how orcas communicate, or how they transmit their cultural rules and traditions. They realize that "...understanding process (cultural transmission) is crucial to our understanding of the product (culture)" but they just don't even want to talk about it: " attempt is made to deduce what particular form of social learning underlies the observed patterns." And…"we know virtually nothing about the actual learning mechanisms cetaceans employ."

Then they hint at what they suspect: "Human culture is intimately linked to both language and symbolism, but there is currently no empirical basis for discussing the role or non-role of language and symbolism in cetacean culture …"

And they say: "Cetacean cultures appear to possess other attributes that have otherwise been restricted to humans. In particular, we are aware of no phenomena outside humans comparable to the distinctive, stable and sympatric vocal and behavioural cultures which appear to exist at several levels of killer whale society."

Over the next month we will continue to explore the intelligence and culture of the orcas as we discuss the proposed guidelines for increased protection of our locally endangered population.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Interpreting Orca Intelligence

It was recently in the news that dogs, on average, are as smart as a two year old human child in performing some tasks, and in some ways are considered to rival four year olds in their ability to understand both language and simple arithmetic.

And once again, I started thinking about orcas and their large brains, and about how we humans have a difficult time in assessing the intelligence of other species. We want to be able to measure them using ourselves as yardsticks, we weigh and measure their abilities based upon our own...yet those measurements inevitably fall short because other species are adapted so differently.

Nonetheless, until science is able to unravel the mystery of animal intelligence, most of us are comfortable with comparing animals to ourselves and to other animals. I think the real problem comes when we put a 'spin' on what we see, it causes us to develop beliefs and attitudes about a species before we truly understand its nature or abilities.

To illustrate this, I've included three YouTube videos all based on footage of the same orca encounter in Antarctica. I was able to embed two of them here, the third would only allow a link - but it is worth the trouble to view it, because it sensationalizes the event and makes speculations. Plus it changed the outcome...which was actually a happy one.

CNN's version - concise.

A Spectator's footage - longer with more detail.

Animal Planet's version: Dramatic and misleading, but interesting.

The point here is that we can see the intelligence of the orcas in action, no one can reasonably challenge that. But we don't know, really, how the orcas communicated during the event, nor do we know their motivation -- and the things we see in the media can be misleading.

So are they smart? Definitely. Someday we will have an idea of how they compare to us, but in the meantime we have to be careful that we don't form concepts that are based on misinterpretation.

After all, the fact that the orcas chose not to kill the seal tells us as much about them as does their brilliant hunting strategy.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Standards of Care for Endangered Whales

Most of our readers here know that L-pod member "Lolita" is from a locally endangered population of orcas, one of only 86 of those whales left. Her life is far from ideal, and she is not being kept in a pool that is legal, even by the low standards set by the theme parks. And what we want to know is how this can be rectified.

In the wild, orcas rarely stop moving. (Photo courtesy OrcaNetwork, taken by Peter Pijpelink)
Marine mammals are protected everywhere in the wild, but when "Lolita's" pod, along with the other pods that comprise the Southern Resident Killer Whales received the status of Endangered in 2007, an exception was written into the documents excluding all members of J, K, and L pods living in captivity at the time. "Lolita" was, and remains, the only living member taken from the wild…so the exception must have been written in to exclude one lonely isolated orca.

Now how did that come to pass? Would it not have made more sense to offer her protection and then let the theme park petition to keep her? Would they then not have had to provide a legal pool for her?

And shouldn't biologists decide what are adequate facilities for marine mammals, not the theme parks themselves?

We are curious about the lives of dolphins and whales (Creative Commons photo)
As a society our values seem to have taken a shift since the early days of zoos, circuses, and theme parks - we really don't enjoy tired acts and worn out displays, and it is painful to think about intelligent, harmless and gentle beings confined in miserable looking situations away from others of their own species.

Yet we are conflicted…we have learned a great deal about orcas and other dolphins by studying captives, and we want to increase our knowledge. Reasonably enough, both polls (here and Facebook) show that if dolphins and whales are in captivity, most poll takers expressed that it should be for research purposes – although I think that there is far more to be gained by researching them in the wild at this point.

In the meantime, a member of a locally endangered species languishes in a sad theme park without the company of her own species, in a substandard pool.

I have written to both Senator Patty Murray and Senator Maria Cantwell and requested that they share with us explanations as to the government's lack of action, and will post their replies when I receive them.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Is The Government Doing Its Job To Protect Captive Whales And Dolphins?

Hopefully the USDA will inspect and measure the concrete bowl where Lolita has lived the past 39 years and will find it unlawful under the Animal Welfare Act...
Those words from Howard Garrett's post really got me wondering about how it is possible that the governmental agencies responsible for animal welfare are able to turn their backs when it comes to the Miami Seaquarium and the substandard tank where "Lolita" (the orca taken from L-pod) is forced to live.

The USDA arm of the government that is responsible is the Animal Plant and Health Service (APHIS). The Regulations read: 9 C.F.R. Sec. 3.104 - Space Requirements -
The primary enclosure for a Killer whale (Orcinus orca) must have a minimum horizontal dimension of no less than 48 ft. in either direction with a straight line of travel across the center.

Dimensions of "Lolita's" tank. Photo courtesy Orca Network.
Lolita's tank is a mere 35 feet from the front wall to the slide out barrier. At its deepest point in the center the tank is only 20 feet deep. She is about 22 feet long.

In 1995 the Humane Society of the United States filed a formal complaint against the Seaquarium regarding the substandard size of Lolita's tank. The Animal Plant and Health Service (APHIS) has yet to act. Fourteen years later, she is still in the substandard tank.

Who is the Animal Plant and Health Service? Their mission statement says: "Protecting American agriculture" is the basic charge of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). APHIS provides leadership in ensuring the health and care of animals and plants. The agency improves agricultural productivity and competitiveness and contributes to the national economy and the public health.

The 1994 Marine Mammal Protection Act amendments eliminated NOAA Fisheries jurisdiction over captive care and maintenance of marine mammals held for public display, placing it under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Animal Welfare Act administered by the Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). However, the MMPA requires that NOAA Fisheries maintain the captive Marine Mammal Inventory Database.

The 1994 Marine Mammal Protection Act amendment concerning captive marine mammals:

NMFS and FWS will regulate the taking of marine mammals from the wild under the MMPA, while subsequent care and maintenance of captive marine mammals held for purposes of public display at registered or licensed facilities will be regulated by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the Department of Agriculture under the Animal Welfare Act (Pub.L. 89-544, as amended). For the taking and importing of marine mammals for public display, permits will be issued only when [1] the effect of the take or importation on wild populations is considered, [2] the method of the taking is humane, [3] an institution is registered or licensed under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), [4] the institution offers an education or conservation program based upon professionally recognized standards of the public display community, and [5] the institution maintains facilities that are open to the public on a regularly scheduled basis. Although NMFS or FWS must be notified at least 15 days prior to the sale, export, or transport of a captive marine mammal, and NMFS and FWS must maintain an inventory of captive individuals, a permit or other authorization is no longer required to obtain, hold captive, transport, transfer, purchase, sell, or export marine mammals that are being held captive for public display purposes when animals move between facilities that meet the permit criteria. In addition, export of marine mammals is prohibited except as explicitly provided for in the Act.

So why doesn't the USDA do anything to enforce the law with respect to "Lolita's" living conditions?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

When Lolita Comes Swimming Home Again

Orca Network's Howard Garrett has dedicated his time and effort into the "Free Lolita" campaign, and shares his views here with us.

Written by Howard Garrett

Recent photo of L-pod member "Lolita", taken by Shelby Proie on April 2, 2009
Hopefully the USDA will inspect and measure the concrete bowl where Lolita has lived the past 39 years and will find it unlawful under the Animal Welfare Act, and $1-2 million can be found to examine her, transport her to a bay pen along the west side of San Juan Island, and set up a care station with a freezer full of fish and professional care staff. It's all been done before and poses no real risk to her or to her family, but many may wonder what will happen then for Lolita.

After her return to her home waters, as she regains her strength and is led out on swims to experience her waters again, Lolita will be the focus of tremendous attention in the Pacific Northwest and far beyond. Of course security at the bay pen will prevent direct observations except by authorized personnel and media, but live webcam coverage and stories about her can be expected to abound locally, nationally and internationally.

Recent photo of some of "Lolita's" pod members, taken by Howard Garrett on June 21, 2009
When someone reads or sees a story about Lolita they will usually tend to care a little more about how she's doing. The reports will also tell about her family, L-25 and the L-12 subpod as well as all the Southern Resident orcas. People will learn about the orcas' long lifespans, lifetime bonding and no dispersal traditions. They'll hear about these orcas' selective diet - about 80% Chinook salmon and 15% chum - and the need to restore salmon habitat and reduce Chinook catches all along the Pacific coast to keep the orcas around. This alone justifies her return home.

Scientifically, we'll learn if Lolita's family bonds and memories are so strong that she will be able to travel, catch fish and socialize with her family, and we'll see the process of rebuilding the trust needed to do so. If she's not able to rejoin her family, the care station will always be there for her with food and companionship if needed.

Humans live according to their stories, and whales provide great inspiration for all ages to learn more and then act to protect and restore the natural world. When kids hear about Lolita and her retirement where she was raised decades ago, many will want to know more, and will do research and feel moved to write their views about orcas and create artwork about them, developing important language skills and learning how to do good science.

Where Orcas Swim Free (Photo by Katie Jones)
The benefits of retiring Lolita in the Salish Sea won't be easy to measure in dollars, but as a learning and sharing experience among the human community, and as a motivator toward better stewardship and protection of our precious marine environment, Lolita would be a priceless teacher for us all.

By Howard Garrett

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Annual Commemoration of the Penn Cove Orca Captures

L-pc25 ("Lolita") photo by Peter Pijpelink - October 30, 2007

The whale they call "Lolita" is a member of L-pod. Her number is L-pc25, which denotes where she was captured (Penn Cove) and the whale she was associated with at that time (L-25, most likely her mother). "Lolita" has a local name too - Tokitae, and this is the family she would most be a member of:

L-pc25's ("Lolita's") presumed family: members of the L-12 subpod and L-25 who is believed to be her mother. Photo by Dave Ellifrit

Working diligently towards the day that "Lolita" is returned to her pod is Orca Network's Howard Garrett. I contacted him about the upcoming Annual Orca Capture Commemoration Gathering event, and he has graciously agreed to contribute his thoughts to this blog and will post here soon. In the mean time, he asked me to consider an interesting question, which I will share:

Putting aside the reasons of compassion,what are the really good things that would come out of bringing her home, how would that benefit us as a community?

What I came up with is that there are profound opportunities for research and education in this, as well as a deep sense of gratification to be gained, but I am sure that there are other things as well...

Saturday, August 1, 2009

"Whale Saves Drowning Diver"

While watching the local news the other day, I saw some pretty amazing footage of Beluga whales as they were interacting with a diver in their pool.

Beluga and Diver (Photo from the online Sun)
I was able to record the footage on my DVR, but I have yet to locate a clip to share here. I have watched it several times, because the event as reported doesn't really sit right with me and I'm not sure exactly why. I'm not at all surprised that the whales would come to someone's aid, but I am surprised that the diver, just trying out for the job, didn't freak out and have a heart attack when the whale grabbed her leg. And what a goofy test to see if the diver would qualify to be a whale trainer, it is more like she was trying out to see if she could qualify as an entertainer.

But once again, the issue of keeping these animals in captivity for our amusement has come to the forefront, and confronting the fact that this can be very dangerous for people is something we really need to add to the equation. An excellent discussion on the subject can be found here. Please keep in mind that even our dogs and other pets can become dangerous when mistreated and confined excessively.

Over the next week or so we'll look more deeply into the issue on captive whales and dolphins, so far our informal polls show that the majority of people are against keeping them captive, and those that support captivity believe that it is okay for small species or for research only.

Please vote on this issue, we will run the poll for about two more weeks.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Orcas and Ecotourism

How much of our fascination with orcas is too much? How many boats, how much underwater noise can they take? At what point, given the dwindling salmon supply, are the whales either going to leave this area permanently or gradually succumb to the environmental stressors and just die off?

CWR 2009 Photo by Erin Heydenreich

No one knows. And that is the problem.

We do know that they are endangered locally, and their survival depends upon our ability to figure it out and set sustainable guidelines…compromises between our desire to watch them as they live their lives as wild, free, and peaceful animals and their ability to cope with us. And in these rotten economic times, we do have to take into serious consideration the businesses and individuals that rely upon the income generated by whale watching tourism. But the whales may not be able to endure it much longer.

In previous posts we have discussed how our resident orcas are constrained in their movements by where they can find salmon, and how the geographic and oceanographic features of the area put the orcas so close to us as they forage. They really can't get away from our boats and noise without leaving. And for them to look elsewhere for food means acquiring a new culture, new ways to hunt fish and to find each other for mating. And still, we would dog them wherever we spotted them because they are so enchanting to us.

The government proposes to give them a break in one small part of their range while we figure it all out - while we learn how much the orcas really can tolerate - and we concentrate on restoring salmon stocks.

We'll just have to adjust, adapt to new rules, and take the long view. After all, they have been adapting to us for centuries.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Resident Orcas Live in a Dynamic Environment

Bubbles (Photo by Erin Heydenreich)
Do orcas use bubbles similarly to other dolphins? We really don't know for sure - nor can we say with certainty if they use their sonar ability to detect currents and water masses. However, we do have some idea of the nature of the marine environment where our local resident orcas spend much of their time, and we can speculate on the rest as we continue to explore the intelligence of these animals. Future posts will delve more deeply into the marine environment, but for now we are staying focused on the qualities that characterize intelligence in mammals.

Resident orcas spent a lot of their time in Haro Strait which is the body of water that runs along the west side of San Juan Island, generally from the Strait of Juan de Fuca and up to Boundary Pass by the Gulf Islands. Underneath is a deep trough, which bumps up against San Juan Island and rises steeply along the area where the whale watch park is located (about where the orca icon is placed). On either end of the strait are shallow areas, called "sills".

Haro Strait Bathymetry
Divins, D.L., and D. Metzger, NGDC Coastal Relief Model,

Salmon returning from the ocean on their way to spawn up in the Fraser River (near Vancouver B.C.) come through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, then most of them head up Haro Strait. Orcas are present frequently during the time the salmon are running, and often appear to hunt them right along the edge of the island, over the sills or any geographic feature that tends to force the fish into an area where they are easier to catch - and fortunately brings the whales close to shore where we can see them.

When watching the whales you might notice that the surface of the water shows some subtle variations in texture - but those surface changes can belie the intensity of what may be going on beneath. Masses of water collide in this region, the tides push through, underwater waves stream, and curtains of bubbles get dragged down below at impressive speeds.

Haro Strait off Whale Watch Park (Photo by Elliot Whiting)

These graphs illustrate the dynamic nature of Haro Strait, and show a mass of bubbles moving at a clip of 50 centimeters per second downward and extending to a depth of almost 100 meters. That is a little over a foot and a half per second, to a depth of just under 300 feet. This type of event is transitory, but occurs frequently. It is certainly possible that these bubbles and vertical currents could be detected by the orcas - the entrained bubbles were measured using equipment that works similarly to dolphin sonar.

Entrainment of bubbles.
(Graph prepared by the Ocean Dynamics Laboratory at the University of British Columbia (except for the added clip art) To be accurate the whale icons should be about half the size shown, but they are too hard to see when made to scale).

The middle graph shows the temperature difference of the water masses, and the blocks of salmon illustrate that as the fish move from salt to fresh water on their journey home, they move around the water column to track the river source (the river water is warmer and lighter than regional ocean temperatures - we will cover river plumes and salmon in later posts).

The bottom graph shows the speed of the currents as they moved vertically up and down the water column, and the whale icons show the direction of movement.

If you have spent much time whale watching, you will be familiar with the whales' ability to pull a vanishing act at times...they just seem to submerge and disappear, or surface a mile a way. Maybe the orcas are hitching rides on deep waves or currents.

It is certainly possible...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How Dolphins Make The Bubble Rings

So how do the dolphins make those bubble rings (previous post) that seem to defy what we know about physics? According to a Scientific American article on the subject, the dolphins are able to create and control the movement of the rings by controlling the movement of the water around their own bodies.

Probably the easiest way to visualize this is to think of a whirlpool, similar to what is created around the drain of a bathtub when we let the water out, except in this case the vortex consists entirely of water.

Whirlpool (Creative Commons Photo)
After first creating the whirling vortex of water with their body motion, the dolphins then blow a huge bubble of air such that the water vortex pushes through the center and traps a ring of bubbles around it's edges. The dolphins then continue to manipulate and control the water… and thus control the bubble rings.

But how do the dolphins know where the vortexes are once they make them? Scientists think the dolphins "see" them by using their sonar, and the implications of that are stunning.

Much like we can see these shafts of light, dolphins can "see" water layers with sonar (Creative Commons photo).

Because we know that some of the brain structures of odontocetes (toothed whales and dolphins) are arranged in such a way that what they "hear" might be easily processed in the same parts that process what they see, it is not surprising to understand that at least some of the cetaceans actually create mental pictures of what they detect with their sonar. And although most of us don't think of it that way, oceanographers know that the ocean is not a uniform body of water at all, but a complicated mass of layers and swirls. So if you think about it, what we see as uniform in texture and varying only in light and temperature – how we see the ocean - could be perceived, or 'seen', by the cetaceans in much greater complexity.

In the presence of algae or plankton, we too can see water motion (Creative Commons photo).

If you add to that the fact that some of the dolphins and whales most likely 'see' underwater shapes of currents and vortexes with their sonar,though, you begin to understand their amazing adaptation to the richness of their ocean world.

Photo by Erin Heydenreich

In our next post, we'll talk about how our local orcas may use these properties of water and sound in their search for food.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Is It Art, Culture, or Play?

The dolphins show complex play behavior and cultural transmission in this video, and maybe it can be said to be art as well.

The following video was produced by SeaWorld, and although it is informative, it is not clear as to whether the dolphins were born in captivity or wild caught, in which case the dolphins might have brought the skill with them when captured.

It is not inconceivable that the orcas manipulate water and air for their amusement too!

Orca Surfacing (Center for Whale Research photo)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Orca Brains Are Large and Complex

Cetacean brain development is an example of parallel evolution, adapted to the ocean environment. The brains of orcas are roughly four times larger than ours, have a greater surface area relative to brain weight, have enhanced development in different areas, and some of their nerve transmission speeds greatly exceed ours. Naturally enough we humans don't much like the idea that another species might rival us in that which we feel sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom: our intelligence, and so we have come up with many ways to explain it all away. At first it seemed obvious to make the claim that bigger animals just needed bigger brains...except that animals like the stegosaurus, close in size to orcas, had a brain about the size of a walnut. Not that they were mental giants - but they got by.

The next idea to come along was "brain to body weight ratio", a comparison between the size of an animal and how large it's brain is, and by that measure an orca would clearly be smarter than a stegosaurus, but not as smart as we humans. Unfortunately for us, both hummingbirds and squirrel monkeys beat us in that measurement (we are about 2%, while hummingbirds are about 4%).

Presently we have come up with a way of comparing brain size called "Encephalization Quotient", or EQ, in which
we compare how big an animal's brain is versus how big you would expect it to be relative to the overall size. Ah ha! At last we win, our brains are 7 times bigger than you would expect them to be for our size, while our closest rivals are dolphins and toothed whales, which come in at the 2 to 5 times range. Whew! Except...

Their brains have a greater surface to volume ratio than ours. What this means, basically, is that the part of the brain that integrates information is much greater. Although scientists at first dismissed this by assuming that the tissue was 'primitive' because it differs in structure from ours, current research disputes that. Research also overturns the notions that the types of cells are related to adapting to ocean temperatures, or that the large brains are dedicated to processing echolocation information.

The layout of their brains is different from ours - some regions (such as those associated with smell) are diminished or absent, while others, such as the vision center, are moved around, and the structures associated with hearing are enhanced - but it is every bit as capable of intelligent thought.

Fortunately now though, scientists are beginning to concentrate more on learning how the cetaceans use their massive brains, and less on coming up with ways to dismiss and diminish the evidence that we share this planet with other intelligent beings.

. The recent discovery that cetaceans have a special type of cell (called a spindle cell) previously found only in humans and the great apes implies that they aren’t just intelligent: those cells are associated with our deeper emotions and social bonds.

Candace Calloway Whiting