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9 September 2013 THE DOLPHINS OF SHARK BAY (SCIENTISTS IN THE FIELD) by Pamela S. Turner and Scott Tuason, photo., Houghton Mifflin, November 2013, 80p., ISBN: 978-0-547-71638-1 


"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.


Richie Partington, MLIS
Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com
Moderator http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/


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