Dolphins into the Sushi: Chamberlin on the downside of having thumbs

Your contributing editor was in the Trader Joe’s one day, grinding his coffee at one of their machines next to some other dude. The spoon that’s usually chained to the coffee grinder — it’s there so you can flip the last of the beans down to be crushed — was gone, so we were both using the plastic lids from our coffee cannisters to this end. Guy says to me something about how isn’t it great we have thumbs, can learn to use simple tools and ha ha ha.

My response: “Fuck thumbs man. Thumbs mean that we developed agriculture, built cities and spread civilization to the point where we gotta have jobs in order to buy food and stay alive.” The dude sorta laughs as I go on. It’s a Silver Lake Trader Joe’s in the middle of the afternoon — i.e. full of self-employed freelancers and other such bohemians and assorted leisure-seekers — so it’s not surprising that he’s somewhat sympathetic to my random, half-serious anticivilization spiel.

“Take dolphins, for example. They didn’t evolve thumbs, which means they get all the benefits of intelligence minus the drags of civilization. So they swim around all day having sex and eating sushi,” and dodging tuna nets and plastic bags etc etc, “while you and me have to scrimp and save only to settle for some lame pre-packaged California rolls. Never mind my prospects as a hetero male trying to find a date in a city where the single guys outnumber the single ladies two to one.” He laughs again and we’re both on our way home to enjoy the fruits of civilization such as the aforementioned coffee and deli-fresh sushi.

I was kidding about the sushi line, but as it turns out dolphins use — or at least are starting to use — a sushi-chef like approach to preparing cuttlefish for dining. From Discover:

Australian researchers have observed a female bottlenose dolphin using her snout to prepare a meal of cuttlefish. But instead of just gobbling up the fish, the dolphin carefully extracted its bones before dining—a display of chef-like skills that is extraordinary among marine mammals.

The feast took place in South Australia’s Upper Spencer Gulf, where cuttlefish breed. The researchers had first filmed this amazing culinary-enabled dolphin off the coast of South Australia in 2003, where they saw her preparing four different cuttlefish. They were able to identify her in 2007 by her scars (apparently the circular scars on her head were unique enough to identify her four years later). They recorded her meals with a Sony HD Cam video camera, and later used the footage to analyze her foraging behavior.

Read the original study, “Preparing the Perfect Cuttlefish Meal: Complex Prey Handling by Dolphins” at PLoS ONE.

More dolphins after the jump.

This follows the first documented use of tools by dolphins back in 2008, as another team of researchers studied the way dolphins use sponges to scare up meals of tiny fish from the ocean floor. And then teach their offspring how to do the same thing — though it’s mostly the female dolphins that pick up the skill. Also from Discover:

In the study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, lead researcher Janet Mann explains that while mothers show both their male and female calves how to use sponges, female calves are almost exclusively the only ones to apply this knowledge. “The daughters seem really keen to do it,” says Mann. “They try and try, whereas the sons don’t seem to think it’s a big deal and hang out at the surface waiting for their mothers to come back up” [New Scientist]. Mann speculates that this could be because sponging is a time-intensive and solitary occupation, with more work required per meal; she thinks it’s possible that male dolphins aren’t willing to give up the socializing that could give them access to fertile females.

Read the original study, “Why Do Dolphins Carry Sponges?” also in PLoS One.

And while we’re at it, here’s a solid piece from Scientific American about dolphin researcher Diana Reiss. It’s a nice little profile about her work helping protect dolphins and her experiences with different forms of dolphin communication. Of particular interest though was her path toward this career:

Reiss’s expressive ways are no accident. She graduated from college with a degree in theater and went on to work as a set designer with the Manning Street Actors Theater in Philadelphia. In the mid-1970s the group went on a trip to Poland to visit Jerzy Grotowski, an experimental director who worked with a concept he called “theater laboratory”. One night, in an effort to break down the actors to “the basic components of acting,” Grotowski put them in the middle of a room and had them do animal calls. “It was like an epiphany,” Reiss recalls. “I just felt like I really wanted to study animal communication.”

Read the rest of “Whistles With Dolpins” over at Scientific American.

And in closing … We are late to this but the underground tape-trading kids have been getting the word out for months now: DOLPHINS INTO THE FUTURE is the top ranking Belgian when it comes to deep-sea marine-mammal synth-jams.

2 thoughts on “Dolphins into the Sushi: Chamberlin on the downside of having thumbs

  1. Pingback: Reader: Feb 4, 2009 « updownacross

  2. Pingback: Underwater Idylls | Inter-Dimensional Music

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