Whalesong and higher intelligence
By Melissa Dymock
Panelists at the Future in Review conference discussed whether humans are the most intelligent species or whether other big-brained animals like whales surpass us.
Roger Payne, founder and president of Ocean Alliance said assuming humans are the smartest species is a mistake made “constantly and at our peril.”
Christopher Clark, a senior scientist at Imogene Johnson on the panel said he first became entranced by the songs of whales in 1972 when a friend published on how whale calls could cross an ocean. Twenty years later after the fall of the USSR, the U.S. Navy allowed him use of its sound surveillance to listen for whales.
Clark said he could hear blue whales in the Virgin Islands from 3,000 miles away.
“This animal was illuminating the ocean,” he said.
They tracked the large animals and heard one school sing a chorus for four months. The problem according to Clark is the noise from modern watercraft is drowning out the song.
With the noise of a ship, the animal loses all ability to hear and be heard. Clark displayed an animation of the effect of ocean liners when sailing through the Glacier Bay National Park. He used this animation to educate park officials in a way data never could.
Even eco-tourism adds to the problem. Ships and boats in the northwest carrying tourists eager to see whales disrupt their songs and their ability to forage.
Mark Anderson, the founder and CEO of Strategic News Service added to the conversation saying that the leading cause of death in some of these whale pods is starvation. “They’re dying because their cute,” he said. “Let’s save them because they’re brilliant.”
Benjamin Smarr, a post-doctoral fellow at Berkeley, talked about why it’s so important to save and study these creatures. The brain, he said, is highly specialized architecture for very specific tasks, making it much more powerful than a computer. By studying the brain, we can discover how it does things. Knowing this can aid in quantifying a brain’s neurological architecture and its capability. To build higher processing systems, this understanding is critical.
“These whales are doing things, and we have no idea how they’re doing it,” Smarr said.
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