From biologist Smolker, evocative field days on a wild Australian coast and thought-inspiring stories of creativity and intelligence in the dolphin world.
For 15 years Smolker has been studying dolphins, tapping into that “simple, vital, powerful, warm-blooded commonality” that binds us to them, two big-brained mammals that seemingly share much despite being so different. Smolker’s years at Shark Bay in the Indian Ocean off Australia were concerned not so much with “How smart are they?” as with “How are they smart?” Since the scientist’s work started during the early days of dolphin research, such questions as how often they have babies and how they are raised, where they travel, what and how do they eat—what they do the live-long day—were necessarily on the agenda. Thus much of the work recounted here in striking, anecdotal episodes touches upon dolphin behavior, from grand societal configurations on through their mean dark sides and on to simple hypotheses concerning such activities as stunning prey with tail flicks or blasts of vocalization. A fascinating chapter deals with the use of tools by dolphins—as in foraging the bottom with a sponge in their mouths to protect against the spines of scorpionfish, while the latter can be used to poke eels from hiding places for a snack. The passing on of these actions from generation to generation displays an example of the cultural tradition of tool use. Smolker’s writing is mostly in the descriptive vein (though there is plenty of speculation), both graceful and suggestive. It's put to good use on one of her walkabouts, during which she explores the terrain around Shark Bay, the raw howling wild that stole her heart.
Fascinating work, part of the animal research that has led us to redefine intelligence and reconfigure our notion of kinship with other species.