Thinking With Tentacles

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)
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Read Also:
* Beneath the Waves
* Eerie Impersonation
* The Saddest Song
Continue reading

Eerie Impersonation

A Captive Beluga May Have
Learned to Mimic Our Speech

Whales are smart. Or so we’ve been told since we began studying them, instead of killing them, in the 1960s. But a lot of the initial assumptions about cetaceans’ intelligence was based on brain size, and that’s no longer a reliable indication of cognition, scientists say.
Still, self-centered as we are, we’re always impressed when animals begin to sound like humans. The latest example is Noc, a San Diego Beluga whale, whose haunting speech-like pattern, a few octaves lower than his normal ‘voice,’ has been recorded and is all over the Web.
The recording was made by a National Marine Mammal Foundation team of researchers, as part of an online study published on Current Biology. It sounds like the animal was mocking his human handlers, but that’s reading too much in what’s essentially a mimicking exercise.
It took Noc some 16 years to produce what was caught on tape, something that the much smaller brain of a parrot, for example, would produce in just a few months. Still, it gives anyone pause. But before you grow too attached to the whale, a sad note: he died years ago.
SPEECH OR PARROTING?
For the record, cetaceans are indeed intelligent in ways we don’t quite comprehend, and communicate mainly by sounds through long distances in frequencies we can’t hear. Just like elephants and other Continue reading

The Saddest Song

The Loneliest Whale in the
Ocean Can’t Find Her Mate

Her voice was first heard in 1989. Oceanographers have been following her songs for two decades. It all indicates that she’s a baleen whale, a subspecies that includes the great Blue, the Fin and the Humpback whales. But there’s something very sad about this creature.
Unlike any other in the ocean, she (or he, no one knows its gender) sings at a 51.75Hz frequency, way above the 12 to 25Hz range of every other whale. It’s a frequency her kind can’t hear and as she ages, her songs are getting lower and lower in pitch too. For comparison, 52Hz is just above the lowest note on a tuba.
A study in 2004 determined that the sounds come from a single animal whose movements ‘appear to be unrelated to the presence of other whale species.’ In other words, she’s always alone and even the migration paths that she follows year after year are unique.
And yet she sings. Her elaborate songs come in groups of two to six calls, lasting for five to six seconds each. But it’s unlikely that this whale will ever mate, which is tragic since cetaceans have such a rich Continue reading