Dolphins use tools and and cynics may dwell in Washington. Who knew?
June 27, 2005.
I say, old girl, could you had me that sponge? There’s a bit of sharp coral I’d like to explore and I don’t want to cut my nose--A number of animals--besides h. sapiens--use tools, including crows who use twigs and leaves to forage for food. Those behaviors, however, are believed programmed in their genes. Primates were alone, however, in making use of tools as a matter of culture, taught by one critter to another. The tools aren’t in their genes. It turns out they may not be alone. Dolphins in Shark Bay, Australia wear sponges on their nose, it is believed, to protect them from sharp coral and stinging animals. The trick is passed on as a matter of Shark Bay dolphin culture, from mother to daughter. One dolphin apparently figured out it was safer nosing about that way and told her daughter about it and it got passed on. The dolphins, Pacific bottlenoses, are the first marine mammals known to have this ability and it could mean that culture within a group of animals isn’t quite as uncommon as once thought. The research came from a Swiss scientist, Michael Krutzen of the University of Zurich and a team of Australian, American and Canadian scientists, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, and it must be added that not everyone believes his conclusion. The sponge-wearing is well-known; it’s the culture part that is met with some skepticism. Since you can’t ask a dolphin, any conclusion is guesswork. But Krutzen and his colleagues said they have done a genetic search and while all the sponge users were related, sponge use was not consistent with how those genes would be expressed. They all descended from one particular female, presumably the one who figured out the advantage (“Sponging Eve”). Also, there is nothing in Shark Bay’s environment that would make it logical that wearing a sponge on your nose would be an automatic response. On the other hand, of course, the dolphin ladies may be wearing the sponges because they think they look cool.
Cynicism in Washington? I’m shocked. Shocked!--The Bush war on the environment had a set-back recently when a federal judge ruled that the operators of several dams on the Pacific Northwest have to spill water over the dams to let the salmon go by. Calling a plan to “protect” the salmon put forward by our Esteemed Leader “more cynicism than sincerity” (gosh, can you imagine?) he ordered the four spills because it was the only thing that can be done now to save the fish from extinction. Dam operators hate the idea because water spilled over the dam can’t be used to generate electricity. Fish use the spillways to avoid the turbines that generate that electricity. The dam operators had been catching the salmon, loading them onto barges, and shipping them up river, but that clearly hasn’t worked. The spills will cost the Bonneville Power Administration, and some Idaho rate payers, some $67 million. But the judge, James Redden, who actually did not give environmentalists everything they asked for, said there simply wasn’t an alternative. Salmon in that area are on the cusp of extinction. And those of you nodding in agreement at the perfidy of the Bush people ought to know that the Clinton Administration wasn’t a helluva lot better at this and lost in court repeatedly. In a column in the Los Angeles Times, writer Paul Van Develder blames this go-around on the neocons in government, who are trying to roll back the Endangered Species Act.