Dolphins: Even Smarter Than You Thought | Nat Geo Live


Brian Skerry:
Researchers have told us
an awful lot about these animalsbut there is a lot more
waiting to be revealed.
There lies endless potential
for discovery
and maybe for enlightenment.( applause ) These are, arguably, the most intelligent
animals in the ocean. And with this story I’ve worked
with five different species of dolphins in nine locations around the world and
I wanted to make photos that would allow us to see
into the dolphins’ world. You know,
just parts of the dolphin world. There is so much
that we don’t know. After spending probably
two years on this subject, I’ve come to the conclusion
that there is far more that we don’t know about these
dolphin minds than we do. But we have seen ways
that they can be smart. So that’s what I wanted to
show you tonight is a look at some of the ways
dolphins are smart. And I have a small video,
a short video here, that frames this subject
sort of nicely. It’s narrated by
Dr. Diana Reese, who is a dolphin researcher
and especially articulate on this subject. ( music ) Dr. Diana Reiss:
The challenge is to understand
this kind of intelligence.I talk about dolphins as a
non-terrestrial intelligence.
These are totally
aquatic mammals with big brains.
And I think we often
get stuck with
looking for intelligence
through our human lens.
We see it the way
we expect it to be
rather than thinking aboutwhat are the sensory systems
of these animals,
what are the environmental
and social pressures
that they face
in their daily lives
and thinking about their
intelligence like that.
Interestingly, they show
so many things
that are similar to what we do,like mirror self-recognition.Like being able to
learn vocally.
Their vocal behavior.We learn different thingsby studying animals
out here in the wild
and in aquaria.And it’s the marriage
of those two approaches
that gives us
the richest picture
of what’s going on
in the minds of these animals,
in the lives of these animals.These are societies in the sea.What are these big beautiful
minds doing?
These are highly complex,
they are packed with neurons.
They’ve got brains
second to ours in size.
What are they doing
out here with them?
And how do they use them?The researcher and the species that has been studied
the longest is the spotted dolphin
that we see here.And they’ve been studied
by a researcher
named Dr. Denise Herzingwho for, about 30 years nowhas been collecting data
on the spotted dolphins
of the Bahamas.This is Denise right here.She has, sort of, been called
the Jane Goodall of the sea
for her three decades
of work getting to know
over three generations
of dolphins.
And during that time,
she’s correlated, among the research she’s done, she’s correlated dolphin sounds with behaviors to try to unlock the mysteries of
their communication. Very exciting stuff. In this photo, that’s Denise
on the right of the frame there, she is wearing something
that she developed called the CHAT.
C-H-A-T. Which stands for
Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry. It’s essentially a computer
that she can wear underwater that’s capable of
both transmitting and receiving
dolphin vocalizations. When that CHAT box recognizes one of the pre-programmed sounds that she has put in there
after decades of research, a human voice translates
the sound into Denise’s headset. So she’s got certain words that she knows
the dolphin has said, you know, so, sargassum seed
or if she brings a rope or a scarf into the water, she tries to do that.
And she can also type on a keyboard
words out to the dolphin. So signature whistles and different dialects that
she has, sort of, identified. So, this is really the only… only the very beginning but
what she’s hoping for, in time, is to develop true two-way communication
with dolphins. You know, kind of a dolphin
Rosetta Stone
is what she has developed here. There’s only three
of these in existence. And, as I said,
she is just getting started.Dolphin research in the wild
is very difficult.
And because of this,a number of researchers
study captive animals.
Now there is certainly
no shortage of controversy when it comes to
the subject of captive dolphins. None of the researches
that we worked with, that I worked with
on this story, would support, you know, catching wild dolphins
these days for aquariums. This was a very old
bottle-nose dolphin that I photographed in Vallejo,
California at Six Flags. He was playing with
his Batman basketball here, a little cognitive stimulation. But it was in that facility that a researcher
named Dr. Stan Kuczaj from the
University of Mississippi had an experiment.He created a maze
out of PVC pipe.
It was similar to finger mazesthat chimpanzees
have been used with
over the years.
And the way this worked is
he made a gelatin ball…That’s the yellow gelatin ball.…and he would drop in the top
of the PVC pipe at the top.
And then the dolphin
had to figure out
how to get it out the bottom.It would use its rostrum
to, sort of, poke it
and prod it along
and then get it out.
Well, the dolphin
figured this out in about a second and a half.
It took no time at all. And then once it came out
the bottom the dolphin could eat it. So it was a little bit of
a reward. So, Stan then created
another experiment with dolphins that he works with
in Key Largo, Florida.He took another piece of PVC,a PVC tube and
he glued an end cap to it.
And on the other end cap
it wasn’t glued.
It would just, sort of,
fit snugly on the other end.
And he put fish inside.He showed the dolphins
that there were fish inside.
And he had ropes on either end.And the theory here was that the dolphins would
have to communicate. They’d have to not only
problem solve, but they’d have to communicate
and work cooperatively in tandem to figure this out. So, he showed it to them
and threw it in the water.And as you can see
the dolphins, again, really…
It maybe took a minute
and half this time.
But once again nailed it.One would hold it while the
other one pulled the rope.
And then they had the fish,they popped out
and they could sort of
enjoy the spoils
of their victory here.
So, very, very smart.He, as a cognitive biologist, has worked with
many different animals. He was quite surprised
at just how quickly they would figure
this stuff out. Um…
Another place that Stan is working with captive dolphins is in Honduras.
On the island of Roatán.Because it’s so large
and because there’s 30 dolphins,
and there are so
many dolphins,
that scientists can observe,
sort of, natural alliances
that are formed.
Social behaviors.
But, you know, groups would form
little cliques,
males fighting with each other,
mating groups and so forth.
Quite interesting.You know, the way they raise
revenue at this place, or places like this, is through
these dolphin experiences,where tourists can come down
mostly off cruise ships,
and have these, sort of, little
interactions with dolphins.
It’s not my cup of tea,
not the kind of thing that I would really advocate. But the interesting experiment
beyond the social stuffthat Stan is doing down thereis something he calls
the Dolphin Reading Program,
where he has
a series of symbols,
black symbols on white slates,that are supposed to indicate
individual behaviors.
And he shows the dolphin
the slate,
and then using hand signals,tells the dolphin what they are
supposed to do.
So, in this case,the down arrow just
very simply means
the dolphin is
supposed to submerge.
Well, that’s how it begins but then he stops
doing the hand signal. So, weeks later,
he will come back and just show the
two-dimensional slate to the dolphin and
it has to be able to read. And, you know,
in terms of science, I guess that’s a rather
big deal. That a dolphin
can read a symbol, remember it off a
two-dimensional slate, not a trainer telling
them what to do, and then perform
that action. Well, again the dolphins
did it quite well. Some better than others.
I mean, it seems like, you know,
the juveniles were a little more playful or whatever.
But if you get the right animal it really understood this. And here we see the dolphin
nailing it one more time. I, on the other hand,
had a hell of a time trying to get that line straight as I was trying to
shoot this split-shot here and not have water
drops on Stan’s face that made him look like
he was melting from acid but… Anyway, well the captive stuff
was interesting but, as always, I just wanted to
get out into the wild.Because this is, you know,
where it happens for me…
One of those species
I photographed
was the spinner dolphins
in Hawaii.
These are animals that
are known for their aerobatic,
you know, leaps and spins.
Probably to shake parasites.
I think they do it just
because they can but…
These are some of the most
social of all dolphin species.You almost never see
a single animal out there,
or even a group of
three or four.
They’re always
in these very big groups.
It’s also the only,
well, one of the few dolphins,
that has never successfully
been kept in captivity
because they need
that social stimulation.
They need to be with
big pods as we see here.
One of the behaviors that I
was really hoping to photograph but didn’t know if I was
gonna be successful, was game play with dolphins. Particularly with
the spinner dolphins. I had heard that
sometimes you can see them playing games with leaves
that fall into the water. They’ll pick up a leaf,
as we saw in the video, on their pectoral fin
or their tail or their dorsal fin and
then they swim through the water and then they pass
it to one another in this, you know,
morning game of catch.So this one particular morning,most of the times
I was working off of boats,
but this one morning
I went in from a little cove off
the island of Kona,
the big island,
and I swam out. It was
early in the morning
and I was just blown away.I saw these
three spinner dolphins
that were just adorned
with leaves.
They were playing
with these leaves.
One on its dorsal,
tail and pectoral.
And light levels were very low,
so I, sort of, boosted the ISO
and was able to make this
picture of them playing catch.
Well, one of the other things
that I wanted to focus on with this story about
how dolphins are smart was to look at
feeding strategies. Because unlike
many other animals, dolphins have developed
unique feeding strategies depending where in the world
they’re located geographically. They have invented these ways
of feeding that are quite interesting.In the Bahamas,bottle-nose dolphins
have developed a strategy
known as crater-feeding.They use their echo location,
their sonar, to find little fish
that are hiding under the sand
and when they find a fish,
they position their
body vertically
and, sort of,
dig with their rostrum
down into the sand,
creating this crater.
It’s like seeing
a dolphin growing out of
the bottom of the ocean here
when you swim down like this.
So, again,
this is all free diving
down about 30 feet
trying to be stealthy
to get close enough
to get a picture like this.
In Florida, bottle-nose dolphins
have developed
a completely different
feeding strategy.
This is in Florida Bay,
near the Everglades,
where these dolphins
have developed something
called mud-ring feeding.And the way this works isa single dolphin will make
a perfect mud ring
around a school of fish
and he does that by,
it’s in very shallow waterand he’ll swim around
using his tail
to disturb the mud,
making little plumes of mud,
eventually encircling the fish.And the fish will freak outbut they won’t swim through
the mud ring
they actually leap over.So his buddies who are waiting
out there, with their…
with their mouths open
and then he comes around too.
And you know, the fish literally
jump right into their mouths.
This stuff had never
been photographed before.
I was able to do this
from a helicopter
with a 500 millimeter lensand I used this steadying device
called the glide-cam
that actually
allowed me to shoot
with that one lens
from a moving helicopter.
Pretty interesting stuff.In Patagonia, Argentina,I wanted to work with
dusky dolphins
because I knew that
dusky dolphins
have a strategy where
they use communication
in a cooperative
feeding event,
where they will use the soundto create bait-balls
of anchovies.
There is lot of anchovies
in the Gulf of Nuevo here.
And they also do this
leaping behavior,
not unlike the spinners,but they’ll leap out
of the water.
Scientists tell us that
that’s for two reasons.
One, is to create a splash that scares the fish
into these tight balls. But it also evidently calls dolphins from across the bay
to come and help in this feast. So the water here
is temperate water. It’s quite cold.
And when I was there, it was really thick
with plankton and algae. The visibility wasn’t that good.Very tricky to photograph
these highly contrasted dolphins
but that was the behavior
I wanted to photograph,
This cooperative feeding.So, I spent three weeks
in Patagonia and I didn’t see anything
until the very last day. It was literally the last
ten minutes of the last day. I way out in the
Gulf in a small boat and was pretty much ready
to give up and surrender, and we saw birds working. And the captain of the boat said “I think something
must be happening, Brian.” So, with a little 30 foot cubic
bottle on my back, I dove down.And I came upon this scene
where we had six dusky dolphins
feeding cooperatively. I got
there sort of at the tail end.
But you still see a little ball
of anchovies here.
And the dolphin at the bottom
was just about to pick off
one of the anchovies.
All the white particles there…
Those are fish scales.And, there is a penguin,
a magellanic penguin
that had an anchovy in his mouth
that was down there.
And even a sheer water bird
that was diving down.
Everything joins
in on this feast.
So sometimes things do go right.A bit of serendipity here.
But all… all good.
Well, the last species
of dolphins that I wanted to
share with you tonight, and the last
feeding strategy actually, occurs with the biggest
and most intelligent species of dolphin
and that is the orca.So to photograph
this unique strategy,
I returned to
Patagonia a year later,
at a different part
of Patagonia,
this was Punta Norte
in the Valdes Peninsula.
And it was a strategy known as
a stranding behavior for orcas.
This is the object
of their desire:
The little sea lion pups
that are born in January
and about by April,they begin testing the watersand going in and sea lion pup
is what’s for dinner.
This is the only place
in the world where these orcas have
developed this strategy where they will actually
come up on the beach.And almost strand themselvesto try and catch one of these
sea lion pups.
It was amazing to see this.They have to be very
resourceful to do it because
it can only happen
when the tide is high.
They don’t want to
get stranded at low tide.
It can only happen
in places where there’s, sort of,
a natural channel where they can do that. The pups have to be there,
and sort of in the surf zone. They can’t expend
a lot of energy, you know,
wasted energy to do this. But here you see one of those
orcas very close to shore in this jade colored sea here, just sort of cruising along. And when the moment is right, that orca will just
turn on a dime and just come racing in. And the pups,
you know, are just clueless. They have no idea
what’s happening. It’s like,
“Oh, are you my friend?” You know, and this thing is just
waiting under the waves here.And this is the next framein the sequence
a millisecond later.
By that time the pups usually
figure it out but it’s–
it’s usually too lateand they will just kind of
race right in and grab them.
And sometimes the females,
this is largely done by females,
and they’ll take the pup out
while it’s still alive
and they actually
play with it off shore.
It’s, kind of,
this gruesome game
where they’ll flip it up
with their tail.
That little pup
is actually screaming,
you can see the mouth is open.And it’s teaching,
the orca is teaching it’s calf,
it’s a calf on the left
of the frame there.
So, this is all
learned behavior.
You know,
this is what dolphins do. It’s not inherent in their DNA. It’s moms teaching calves
and sort of this culture, if we can use that word,
where they’re passing this on to the next generation.But you know, sometimes
they are not successful
and I guess nature
gives and takes.
And we see, one of the
pups here getting away
and the orca has to wiggle
its way back into the ocean
and try for another day.A happy ending for the seal–seal pup fans
in the audience here. So…
In closing,
we slip back beneath the surface
looking into the
eyes of dolphins
and can’t help but wonder
how much more do they know.
What are they really thinking?Researchers have told usan awful lot about
these animals and
about the entire ocean
for that matter.
But there’s a lot more
waiting to be revealed.
Within the sea,there lies endless potential
for discovery
and, maybe, for enlightenment.Thanks very much. ( applause )