Mad Penguins & Whale Accents
in the Court of the Octopus King
Research into the natural world has been a reliable way of gauging our walk on this planet, and where we’re probably heading to. But a new approach, devoid of any rancid anthropomorphism, has offered fresh insights into animal intelligence. And the results are remarkable.
Heard the one about whales with a Caribbean accent? Or penguins having sex parties wilder than drunken priests? But no one was ready to witness an octopus opening a jar from inside, or sneaking out at night to feed on crabs nearby, before returning to its tank. Or not.
What these and other animals prove is that cognitive ability is not a human monopoly. In fact, whenever the need to compare them with us is subtracted from the equation, crows, cephalopods, and pigeons, to name a few, can outsmart a thinking bloke often in a radical way.
Evolution has proposed alternatives to some species so far from our own, that they could be almost aliens raised in Pluto for we know. Since we no longer equate physiology with identity, it’d be better get acquainted with mental prowess that owes nothing to rationality.
Not that we even apply it to everything, and yes, to us, there is something wrong with that. But elephants have always cried of sadness, and chickens do side up with individuals in danger. We were just too busy trading their tusk for the ivory, or simply eating them, to pay any attention.
ADÉLIES JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN
Let’s get this out of the way: penguins are not humans, thus morality is not an issue, even if a colony, in the distance, looks like a black-tie cocktail party. And for belting out loud, the Adélies have nothing on the singing lady Adele. But when it comes to parties, theirs do get wild.
During Capt. Scott‘s second, and doomed, trip to Antarctica, between 1910-13, George Murray Levick wrote of widespread necrophilia, males sexually coercing young chicks, before killing them, and shock, having sex with other males. To him, it was ‘depravity,’ and his notes (in Ancient Greek, to harden access to them) went missing.
Till now: they’ve been uncovered and bad ‘science’ journalism have ensued, of course. But the biggest recent news about the Adélie had nothing to do with sex. In February, it was reported that 150,000 penguins died, after being landlocked by the fracture of a giant iceberg.
But it was a hoax, better researched stories have confirmed. Neither sex fiends nor massacred by climate change, yet, penguins are just, once again, being victims of bad reporting. Why we care has nothing to do with humanity either: they just look like us. We’re already changing their history. Time to tell their stories way better, too.
DEEP SONGS & ACCENTED CLICKS
Since at least the 1970s, news about whales is always surprising, even as their numbers keeping receding towards extinction. The size of their brains, rich social lives, their songs, complex and uniquely identified with their pods. And then there’s the loneliest of them all.
The fact that research into these massive but elusive species has reached such a level of sophistication is, in itself, (more)
* Beneath the Waves
* Eerie Impersonation
* The Saddest Song
amazing. Thus, a new Royal Society study has detected unique patterns in the way Caribbean sperm whales call each other. That’s right, they’ve got accents.
Whales communicate with a series of clicks, in segments called coda. Like people, how they sound is unique to a specific region and social group. Put together, not even computers can tell individual whales apart, proving that the whole clan learned exactly the same coda.
That’s astonishing. But there’s more: the same study has also confirmed that whales, as T.S. Eliot once realized about cats, have names known only among themselves. No, we don’t wish Broadway would come up with a Whales musical any time soon. But one does wonder: like actors, can they also fake accents?
INK MASTERS OF THE BLUE DOMAIN
Escape artist. King of disguise. Shrewd problem solver. Only a few species deserve such a wide range of superlatives, but the octopus also adds stunning beauty to the mix. The more we learn, the deeper our sense of wonder and puzzlement about them. As with whales, divers have wondered if they are really staring back at them.
A quick search on the Internet produces an unsettling collection of videos that only confirms what a character in Michael Crichton‘s Sphere says at some point: ‘an octopus is so smart that the biggest limitation to its behavior is its lifespan.’ After all, three years is not enough to build something as complicated as a culture, or conquer the world.
Earlier this month, Inky, an octopus who lived at the National Aquarium of New Zealand, shocked the world by squeezing itself through a gap on his tank, dashing across eight feet of floor, and slipping through a drainpipe towards Hawke’s Bay, never to be seen again.
It’s the kind of daring exit legends are made, but not an isolated incident, as far as octopuses are concerned. Much less cinematographic but way more relevant is the study of its tentacles, which seem to act as extensions of their eyes and brains. Which, by the way, hold only a third of their neurons.
CLEVER EIGHT-LEGGED ALIENS
That means that a big part of Inky’s decision to escape towards the big Octopus Garden where he originally came from, may have taken place in his extreme powerful limbs. That combination of sheer strength and ability to think outside, er, their brain box, makes them alien to us.
In another footage, an octopus carries two halves of a coconut, which they can easily crush with their bone-made beak, across the ocean floor. At times, it stops and gets inside them. Its tryouts and the quick pace it moves shows there’s a purpose behind its actions, shown later on the video: protection, shelter, camouflage.
Whether we’re reading too much on these scenes, or if it turns out that there are other explanations for these animals’ behavior, one progress we should give ourselves credit for: we’re no longer concerned about wrapping our studies with some obsolete conclusion about their supposedly innate nobility.
As we discard these and other preconceptions, a new world, or rather, universe is opening up to us. Almost as if discovering another civilization living side by side with ours. And an alien one, at that. But even more disconcerting will be to find out that animals, deep down, don’t really find us that interesting.