Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Day of the Dolphin

We all know dolphins are extraordinarily intelligent, don't we? If you had any doubt, watching BBC1's "Super Smart animals" will have re-educated you. (It also demonstrated that chimps are a whole lot faster than we are when it comes to certain tasks (the nonchalance of the chimp doing a near-impossible memory game has to be seen to be believed) and some birds are insanely clever; they know physics and stuff. Watch it now and you'll see what I mean...)

Anyway, scientists have now decided that dolphins are too smart to be considered animals (so Border Collies can't be far behind). Dr Thomas White (author of In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier) said “dolphins should be regarded as “non-human persons” and valued as individuals."

Dolphins actually have MORE spindle cells – the nerve cells controlling empathy – in their brains than we do. So basically, if you were to start watching Free Willy with a dolphin, he would start crying before you did. 

Dolphins hang out together in pods which evolve constantly (a bit like friendship groups at school). They use their echolocation (sonar) to read each other, and detect other dolphins' emotions. Scientists get very sniffy when you start talking about animals having emotions... But they would be the first to jump down your throat if you suggested that humans were in any way different from other mammals – we are the naked apes, after all. So – duh – obviously if we can have emotions, so can other animals. Silly scientists.

For all their empathy, dolphins aren't the angels we sometimes expect them to be. They also bully, kill and rape each other; lovely. However, we adore their cheeky grins and mischievous ways, and swimming with dolphins is often cited as the number one "thing to do before you die". Their echolocation, when applied to people, actually produces alpha brain waves – the kind of relaxation that occurs when you are meditating or doing something you love and totally lose track of time. There is even some evidence that being "scanned" by a dolphin can affect biological tissue – hence the physical healings that can allegedly occur when people take a dip with a dolphin. 

There is a school of thought that we are actually more closely related to dolphins that we imagine. The Aquatic Ape Theory (AAT) was first put forward by marine biologist Alister Hardy in 1960, but has been popularised by writer Elaine Morgan. Apparently there are some uncanny similarities between humans and sea creatures – here we go: 

  • The fact that a baby will instinctively hold his breath when dunked under water (probably best if you don't try this at home, folks). 
  •  We are mostly hairless, like many aquatic mammals, and the hair we do have runs in the direction you would expect for a streamlined swimmer. Also, women's hair grows like crazy in pregnancy and they rarely suffer from baldness, suggesting that babies might use their mother's hair to hang onto. (Yes, they are pushing it a bit with this idea, but it kind of makes sense...)
  • Unlike the flat noses of the chimps and gorillas, we have a downward pointing nose which helps to keep the nostrils free of water when diving. Proboscis monkeys also have noses shaped like this (to be more specific, they have noses shaped like Jimmy Durante's) and they are frequent swimmers in the watery forests where they live. With the help of nose clips (probably not around millions of years ago) we humans can close our nostrils completely, although seals can do it all by themselves. Kudos to them!
  •  Marine mammals, birds and reptiles "cry" when they are releasing salt – but they also do this when they get a bit emotional – fighting, feeding, that sort of thing. One of the objections put to the AAT is that "lots of animals weep because of emotions".  Um, WHA...? That news actually makes me want to boohoo a little bit myself.  Poor Indian elephants.
  • Humans have a lot more fat cells than any primate; Elaine Morgan says "There are two kinds of animals which tend to acquire large deposits of fat – hibernating ones and aquatic ones. In hibernating mammals the fat is seasonal; in most aquatic ones, as in humans, it is present all the year round." Also, our subcutaneous fat is bonded to the skin, like it would be in a dolphin or seal, and unlike the kind of fat found in land mammals. 

There's more: the very slight webbing we have between our fingers (which apes apparently lack) and our sebaceous glands' ability to produce waterproofing oil. Then there is the theory that humans have problems with back and joint pain because walking on two legs on land puts more strain on the body than our "natural" methods of swimming and occasionally wading. (No other land mammal habitually walks upright – although plenty of them can. Ever seen the funny dogs on youtube?)

Of course, there are some rational, sensible reasons for the apparent similarities between humans and aquatic animals, just check out http://www.aquaticape.org/  but I still think it's an interesting idea. And I have no doubt that we are only just beginning to scratch the surface of what dolphins are capable of. I just hope we can keep them on our side. 

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