Whales and dolphins lead ‘human-like lives’ thanks to big brains, says study

The cultural brain hypothesis of human development could also explain cetaceans forming friendships and even gossiping

Life is not so different beneath the ocean waves. Bottlenose dolphins use simple tools, orcas call each other by name, and sperm whales talk in local dialects. Many cetaceans live in tight-knit groups and spend a good deal of time at play.

That much scientists know. But in a new study, researchers compiled a list of the rich behaviours spotted in 90 different species of dolphins, whales and porpoises, and found that the bigger the species brain, the more complex indeed, the more human-like their lives are likely to be.

This suggests that the cultural brain hypothesis the theory that suggests our intelligence developed as a way of coping with large and complex social groups may apply to whales and dolphins, as well as humans.

Writing in the journal, Nature Ecology and Evolution, the researchers claim that complex social and cultural characteristics, such as hunting together, developing regional dialects and learning from observation, are linked to the expansion of the animals brains a process known as encephalisation.

The researchers gathered records of dolphins playing with humpback whales, helping fishermen with their catches, and even producing signature whistles for dolphins that are absent suggesting the animals may even gossip.

Another common behaviour was adult animals raising unrelated young. There is the saying that it takes a village to raise a child [and that] seems to be true for both whales and humans, said Michael Muthukrishna, an economic psychologist and co-author on the study at the London School of Economics.

Dolphins
Dolphins off the coast of South Africa. Photograph: Rainer Schimpf/Barcroft Media

Like humans, the cetaceans, a group made up of dolphins, whales and porpoises, are thought to do most of their learning socially rather than individually, which could explain why some species learn more complex behaviours than others. Those predominantly found alone or in small groups had the smallest brains, the researchers led by Susanne Shultz at the University of Manchester wrote.

Luke Rendell, a biologist at the University of St Andrews who was not involved in the study, but has done work on sperm whales and their distinctive dialects, warned against anthropomorphising and making animals appear to be like humans.

There is a risk of sounding like there is a single train line, with humans at the final station and other animals on their way of getting there. The truth is that every animal responds to their own evolutionary pressures, he said.

There is definitely a danger in comparing other animals to humans, especially with the data available. But what we can say for sure, is that this cultural-brain hypothesis we tested is present in primates and in cetaceans, Muthukrishna said.

There was still much more to learn, though, he added. Studies with underwater mammals are difficult and vastly underfunded, so there is so much we dont know about these fascinating animals, he said.

The fascination, however, should not only be interesting for people studying animals. We dont have to look at other planets to look for aliens, because we know that underwater there are these amazing species with so many parallels to us in their complex behaviours, said Muthukrishna.

Studying evolutionarily distinct animals such as cetaceans could act as a control group for studying intelligence in general, and so help the understanding of our own intellect.

It is interesting to think that whale and human brains are different in their structure but have brought us to the same patterns in behaviour, Rendell said. The extent of how this is close to humans can educate us about evolutionary forces in general.

However, Muthukrishna points out that intelligence is always driven by the environment an animal finds itself in. Each environment presents a different set of challenges for an animal. When you are above water, you learn how to tackle fire, for example, he said. As smart as whales are, they will never learn to light a spark.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Don’t call it a wholphin: first sighting of rare whale-dolphin hybrid

Scientists have identified a creature that they believe to be a hybrid of a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin

Scientists are touting the first sighting of a hybrid between a melon-headed whale and a rough-toothed dolphin in the ocean off Hawaii. But dont call it a wholphin, they say.

The melon-headed whale is one of the various species thats called a whale but is technically a dolphin.

Calling it something like a wholphin doesnt make any sense, said one of the studys authors, Robin Baird, a Hawaii research biologist with Washington state-based Cascadia Research Collective. I think calling it a wholphin just confuses the situation more than it already is.

In a study published last week, scientists say the animal spotted off the island of Kauai in August 2017 appears to be the first record of a hybrid involving either species. Its also only the third confirmed instance of a wild-born hybrid between species in the Delphinidae family.

The label wholphin has stuck for a hybrid born in 1985 at Hawaiis Sea Life Park of a false killer whale and an Atlantic bottle-nose dolphin. The hybrid named Kekaimalu still lives at the marine mammal park, where she helps teach children about genetics. News of the hybrid spotted in the wild during navy-funded research to study the effects of sonar, proves the genetic diversity of the ocean, said Sea Life park curator Jeff Pawloski. To know she has cousins out there in the ocean is an amazing thing to know.

While some news organisations have described the melon-headed whale and rough-toothed dolphin hybrid as a new species, in order for that to happen other things need to occur, including more widespread hybridisation, Baird said.

That isnt the case, although there are examples where hybridisation has resulted in a new species, he said. Theres no evidence to suggest its leading toward anything like species formation.

The male hybrid presents an opportunity to look for others. Hybrids generally occur when there is a decline in the population in one of the parental species, so scientists will be looking out for such a decline.

A likely scenario for how the hybrid came to be is a melon-headed whale getting separated from its group and ending up traveling with rough-toothed dolphins.
Scientists do not know how old it is, but believe it is close to adult age.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Seven right whales found dead in ‘devastating’ blow to endangered animal

Carcasses found off Canada in recent weeks in what may be biggest single die-off of one of worlds most endangered whale species, expert says

Seven North Atlantic right whales have been found floating lifelessly in the Gulf of St Lawrence, off Canada, in recent weeks, in what is being described as a catastrophic blow to one of the worlds most endangered whales.

The first whale carcass was reported in early June. Within a month, another six reports came in, leaving marine biologists in the region reeling.

Its devastating, said Tonya Wimmer of the Marine Animal Response Society, a charitable organisation dedicated to marine mammal conservation in the region. This is, I think, the largest die-off theyve ever had for this particularly species, at once.

The global population of North Atlantic right whales which live along the eastern seaboard of Canada and the US and can reach up to 16 metres in length is thought to be around 525, meaning that more than 1% of the population has died in the past month. So it is catastrophic in terms of potential impact to this population.

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This is, I think, the largest die-off theyve ever had for this particularly species, at once, says an expert. Photograph: Marine Animal Response Society

At least two of the whales were female, with one of them known to be entering its reproductive years. Youre talking anywhere from five to 10 babies in their lifetime. And now they wont happen. Its heartbreaking, said Wimmer.

With no obvious causes for the deaths, a team including federal scientists, pathologists and veterinarians have been racing against time to figure out what is happening. Last week they carried out necropsies on three of the whales, hoping to find clues before the carcasses decompose.

While their findings are still preliminary, they found signs of severe blunt trauma and bruising on two of the whales, suggesting collision with a vessel, while the third had been tangled in fishing gear for weeks.

The findings still dont explain why the deaths have seemingly occurred within such a short time frame, said Wimmer, though regardless, there are some aspects of the last stages of their life that were impacted by human activities in that area. As scientists move into the laboratory to carry out further analyses, some have speculated that the deaths may have been caused by toxic algae or something the whales ate.

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A team including federal scientists, pathologists and veterinarians have been racing against time to figure out the cause of the deaths. Photograph: Marine Animal Response Society

The North Atlantic right whale has struggled since being nearly hunted to extinction by whalers in the late 18th century. In recent years, researchers have noticed the whales moving into the Gulf of St Lawrence in large numbers, leading to increased interactions with humans.

Earlier this week, reports came in of a right whale in the area that was tangled in fishing gear. Some six hours after it was first spotted, scientists were able to cut the whale free of a fishing line in its mouth.

The entanglement, along with the unprecedented number of deaths, may suggest that fishing gear needs to be set out differently or that vessels need to start moving more slowly through the region, said Wimmer. Right now theres still a lot of questions, she added. Theres probably more questions than there are answers.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

‘Not ashamed’: dolphin hunters of Taiji break silence over film The Cove

Members of the tiny Japanese community, which was vilified in the 2009 documentary, speak to the Guardian about fishing and their unique way of life

Taiji is still in darkness when a dozen men gather at the quayside and warm themselves over a brazier. While the rest of the town sleeps, they sip from cans of hot coffee, smoke cigarettes and talk in hushed tones.

As soon as the sun edges above the peninsula, they take to their boats, steering out to sea in formation in search of their prey: the dolphin.

It has been eight years since the Oscar-winning film The Cove propelled this community in an isolated corner of Japans Pacific coast to the centre of a bitter debate over the pursuit of dolphins for human consumption and entertainment.

The films graphic footage of dolphins being slaughtered with knives, turning the surrounding sea a crimson red, shocked audiences around the world.

Unaccustomed to international attention and wrong-footed by their social media-savvy opponents, the towns 3,200 residents simply went to ground. Requests for interviews with town officials went unanswered; the fishermen took a vow of silence.

But after years of keeping their counsel, Taijis fishermen have finally spoken out, agreeing to talk to the Guardian about their work, their whaling heritage, and their determination to continue hunting dolphins.

Weve mostly stayed silent since The Cove, and thats why our point of view was never put across in the media, says Yoshifumi Kai, a senior official with Taijis fisheries cooperative.

Taijis
Taijis dolphin hunters head out to sea Photograph: Justin McCurry for the Guardian

Kai attributes that reticence down to what he claims are attempts by activists from Sea Shepherd and other conservation groups to manufacture confrontations, which they film and post online, and challenges claims that the practice of slaughtering dolphins beneath tarpaulin sheets is proof that he and his fellow fishermen have something to hide.

Activists say we are concealing something because we know that what we are doing is immoral, but thats nonsense, he says. You never see cattle or other animals being slaughtered in public. Its not something you do out in the open.

The earliest recorded coastal whale hunts in Taiji can be traced back to the early 1600s. Scrolls on display in the towns whale museum depict dozens of boats decorated with symbols taken from Buddhism and Japans indigenous religion, Shinto, in pursuit of a whale big enough to sustain the entire community for months.

Foreign activists ask us why we kill these cute animals, but we see them as a vital source of food, even now, says Taijis mayor, Kazutaka Sangen. When I was a boy, a third of the town would turn out to greet a whale being brought back to shore, because they were desperate to eat its meat. We are grateful to the whales we want Westerners to understand that.

Taiji Japan map

By killing dolphins and other small whales, fishermen are continuing a tradition that enabled their ancestors to survive before the days of mass transport and the availability of other sources of nutrition, adds Sangen.

We couldnt grow rice or vegetables here, and we had no natural water supply. We needed to kill whales to eat, and hundreds of people died doing so. This was a very difficult place to survive, and we will always be grateful to our ancestors for their sacrifice. Its because of them that we are all here today.

For Sangen, everything in Taiji from services for elderly residents to education and tourist infrastructure depends on the income it makes from the sale of dolphins to zoos and aquariums. Several times during the interview he refers to kujira no megumi literally, the blessing of the whale. Whaling enables this town to function, he says.

Using remote-controlled helicopters and hidden underwater cameras, The Cove provided graphic footage of Taijis infamous drive hunts, whose critics include the former US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy.

Typically, fishermen pursue pods of dolphins across open seas, banging metal poles against their boats to confuse their hypersensitive sonar, before herding them into a narrow inlet. There, they are either slaughtered for their meat or selected and sold for large sums to aquariums and marine parks.

While dolphin meat for human consumption generates only modest profits, Taijis fishermen can reportedly sell a live specimen to brokers for about 8,000 US dollars. A fully trained dolphin can then fetch more than 40,000 US dollars if sold overseas, and about half that in Japan.

Minke
Minke whale sashimi served at a restaurant in Taiji Photograph: Justin McCurry

The 20 or so Taiji fishermen who take to the sea between September and April to hunt bottlenose dolphins, pilot whales and other small cetaceans have been emboldened by the release of Okujirasama (A Whale of a Tale) a documentary by the New York-based filmmaker Megumi Sasaki that counters what she describes as The Coves one-sided treatment of a complex issue.

While making her film, Sasaki concluded that the debate over Taiji is an irreconcilable clash of cultures between the global, and Western-led, animal rights movement and local traditions steeped in religion and ancestor worship.

Whaling is the glue that holds this town together

If dolphins are so important to the local community, then why kill them thats what many Westerners cant understand, Sasaki says. But we think of animals as a resource, not that they are special creatures that can do things humans cant do. Its a totally different way of thinking. Whaling is the glue that holds this town together its inseparable from local identity and pride.

Kai dismisses claims that that he and other fishermen employ a singularly cruel method to kill the dolphins. The way we work has changed with the times, he says. In response to criticism, fishermen now dispatch the animals by inserting a knife into their neck, severing their brain stem a method he claims is the most humane possible, but which some experts have said does not result in a painless or immediate death.

On a recent morning, the seafront in Taiji is free from confrontation, although activists have tweeted their regular early-morning photos of the banger boats heading out to sea.

The fishermen appear to have reached an uneasy truce with overseas campaigners, first from Sea Shepherd, and now from the Dolphin Project, a group formed by the dolphin trainer-turned activist Ric OBarry.

Warning
Warning signs near the cove in Taiji. Photograph: Justin McCurry for the Guardian

But there is still little interaction between the two sides. They dont want to listen, only to provoke us, Mitsunori Kobata, president of Taijis dolphin-hunting association, says over a dinner of minke whale sashimi and steamed rice flavoured with thin strips of whale blubber.

Theyre here to do whatever they can to obstruct our business, so we dont see any point in engaging with them. Theyre never going to change their minds, whatever we say.

Pointing to slices of sauted meat, from the belly of a short-finned pilot whale, that he has brought from home, Kobata adds: In the days when there was no refrigeration, people preserved meat like this in salt. Of course, there are lots of other sources of protein around these days, but people of my generation and older still have the right to eat whale if we want to.

Both men hope Sasakis documentary will restore some equilibrium to a debate that has cast a shadow over Taiji for almost a decade.

They point out that they kill just under 2,000 small cetaceans a year, a tenth of Japans annual quota, adding that none of the species is endangered or covered by the 1986 global moratorium on commercial whaling.

Were not ashamed of hunting dolphins and would never consider stopping, Kai says. Its the most important part of our local tradition.

Just look around you if we didnt make a living from the sea, there would be nothing left. People keep telling us to stop whaling and find another way of earning a living. But what on earth would we do instead?

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Japan kills more than 300 whales in annual Antarctic hunt

Whaling fleet returns to port after slaughtering hundreds of minke whales, in defiance of moratorium on hunting and global criticism

A Japanese whaling fleet returned to port on Friday after an annual Antarctic hunt that killed more than 300 of the mammals, as Tokyo pursues the programme in defiance of global criticism.

The fleet set sail for the Southern Ocean in November, with plans to slaughter 333 minke whales, flouting a worldwide moratorium and opposition led by Australia and New Zealand.

The fleet consisted of five ships, three of which arrived on Friday morning at Shimonoseki port in western Japan, the countrys Fisheries Agency said.

More than 200 people, including crew members and their families, gathered in the rain for a 30-minute ceremony in front of the Nisshin Maru, the fleets main ship, according to an official of the Shimonoseki city government.

In a press release, the agency described the mission as research for the purpose of studying the ecological system in the Antarctic Sea.

But environmentalists and the International Court of Justice (IJC) call that a fiction and say the real purpose is simply to hunt whales for their meat.

Anticipating the fleets return, animal protection charity Humane Society International called for an end to Japanese whaling. Each year that Japan persists with its discredited scientific whaling is another year where these wonderful animals are needlessly sacrificed, said Kitty Block, the groups executive vice-president.

It is an obscene cruelty in the name of science that must end.

Japan also caught 333 minke whales in the previous season ending in 2016 after a one-year hiatus prompted by an IJC ruling, which said the hunt was a commercial venture masquerading as science and ordered Tokyo to end it.

Under the International Whaling Commission (IWC), to which Japan is a signatory, there has been a moratorium on hunting whales since 1986.

Tokyo exploits a loophole allowing whales to be killed for scientific research and claims it is trying to prove the population is large enough to sustain a return to commercial hunting.

But it also makes no secret of the fact that whale meat ends up on dinner tables and is served in school lunches.

Japan has hunted whales for centuries, and their meat was a key source of protein in the immediate post-second world war years, when the country was desperately poor. But consumption has dramatically declined in recent decades, with significant proportions of the population saying they never or rarely eat whale meat.

In response to the ICJ ruling, Japans 2014-15 mission carried out only non-lethal research such as taking skin samples and doing headcounts.

Past missions have been hampered by a confrontational campaign on the high seas by environmentalists Sea Shepherd. A fisheries agency official said that the whalers this time faced no obstructive behaviour threatening safety of the fleet and crew members by the group.

He attributed that partially to Japan dispatching patrol ships to protect the fleet.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

Photographer Spends 25 Years Trying To Document The Majestic Beauty Of Whales And Dolphins

Christopher Swann has spent over 25 years taking majestic photographs of whales and dolphins, and as you can see from these beautiful pictures, the British photographer and cetacean enthusiast clearly has an intimate bond with these awe-inspiring marine mammals.

“I love the beauty and perfection of the sea,” Swann told mymodernmet. “Cetaceans epitomise that, and nothing is more perfect than any cetacean underwater, but whales are really special. To see animals so huge yet so graceful, so at ease and at one with their surroundings, is exquisite.” The photographer has spent years running whale and dolphin-watching holidays around the globe, but he’s decided to bid farewell to this career in order to focus exclusively on his amazing photography. Take a look at some of his stunning photography below. His pictures serve to remind us that despite their size, these tranquil creatures have the power to instill in us a remarkable sense of peace.

Christopher Swann is a British photographer who takes majestic pictures of whales and dolphins