Dolphins of Shark Bay (Scientists in the Field)

 
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"I  gotta get out of bed get a hammer and a nail Learn  how to use my hands" --  Indigo Girls "Just  as we humans are using tools (for us, a boat and binoculars), this dolphin is  too.  Some Shark Bay dolphins use a squishy sea sponge to protect their  nose (called the rostrum) as they rummage along a channel bottom. When a  sponging dolphin flushes a fish hiding in the rubble, the dolphin drops the  sponge and snatches its prey. "Sponging  dolphins possess a scarce talent. Tool use -- that most human of talents --  is extremely rare among wild animals.  Some chimpanzees use sticks to  collect termites, some crows use twigs to stab beetle larvae, and some sea  otters use rocks to smash shellfish.  Dolphins have no fingers, no feet, no  paws.  Yet somehow, in a brilliant stroke of cetacean innovation, Shark Bay  dolphins have discovered how to use a sponge as a tool." Bottlenose  dolphins are amazingly intelligent.  With brains three times the size of  chimpanzee brains, "Dolphins  can learn simple artificial languages and can recognize themselves in a mirror  (a key test of self-awareness).  They quickly grasp the meaning of pointing  (chimpanzees don't) and are excellent vocal mimics (chimpanzees aren't). "Dolphins  also understand abstract ideas." In  the process of introducing us to the dolphins of Shark Bay, on the west coast of  Australia, author Pamela S. Turner highlights the life and twenty-five  year career of Janet Mann who, with her colleagues, has studied hundreds of wild  dolphins for the Shark Bay Dolphin Project.  Janet comes to know each of  these bottlenose dolphins as individuals and as members of extended  families.  She has also worked with the Australian government to enact rules that better protect these dolphins from nearby commercial fishing interests and from over-enthusiastic eco-tourists. In  learning about the many discoveries of Janet and her colleagues, we encounter photos that --for a beach-lover like me -- make me  wish I was in her shoes (or, actually, the lack thereof).   We also learn a lot about the application of scientific method to  these behavioral studies.  For example: "Because  [during a focal follow observation] everything the dolphins do, minute by  minute, is written down, the data are less likely to be biased by an observer  choosing only the actions that seem important." Some  of what they know about these dolphins reminds me of what I learned while  studying (human) child development: "Brainy  animals play.  Brainy animals need to play.  A shark gets along quite well with a smaller brain and simpler behavior, but more intelligent animals need to test themselves.  Play -- whether it's puppies wrestling, chimpanzees tickling, dolphins chasing, or human children pretending to be puppies or chimps or dolphins -- develop skills.  Some skills are  physical. Some, such as taking turns, are social." Of  course, the more they learn about these creatures, the more questions about them  are generated.  It is easy enough to imagine a day when some future  generation of scientists comes to fully understand the language of bottlenose dolphins or even becomes engaged in sophisticated interspecies communication with them.  This sure seems like a scientific field that  some animal-loving middle school student who reads and is inspired by this  great book can aspire to.

80 pages  Ages  8-12   978-0-547-71638-1 Recommended by:  Richie  Partington, MLIS, Librarian, California USA See more of Richie's Picks _http://richiespicks.com_ (http://richiespicks.com/)

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