Janet Mann stands on the dashboard of the Pomboo, bare toes gripping the steering wheel. She spots a gray fin in the distance.
“Unknown dolphin,” the biologist calls. After twenty-five years in Shark Bay, Western Australia, Janet recognizes hundreds of wild bottlenose dolphins by the unique nicks and cuts on their dorsal fins. This animal, however, is a stranger.
Janet angles the Pomboo’s bow toward the dolphin. Not quite directly, though. She never wants a dolphin to feel chased or threatened. “Does it have a sponge?” Janet asks. “Can anybody see?”
Mystery Dolphin dives before we can get a good look. Janet scrambles off her perch and cuts the engine. Sound carries far across flat water; without the thrum of the motor we might hear the dolphin’s breath as it resurfaces. We are silent and tense, every ear straining for that distinctive poooff. With our faces pressed into binoculars we look like a boatload of windblown raccoons.
Poooff. Mystery Dolphin rises; a brown blob covers its nose like an oven mitt. Happy dances break out at this odd sight.
“A new sponger—”
“This is so cool!”
Janet, graduate student Eric Patterson, and project assistant Jenny Smith are all talking at once and slapping high-fives. Mystery Dolphin goes back to its business in the channel below.
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.
Shark Bay bottlenose dolphins are the only known tool-using dolphins anywhere in the world. Janet has documented sponging by fifty-four Shark Bay dolphins; our newly discovered animal is number fifty-five.
Maybe it’s no great surprise that dolphins have invented the nose mitt. After all, everyone knows that these animals are smart. For years, captive bottlenoses have entranced aquarium visitors with perfectly timed backflips, corkscrew jumps, and tail walks. Decades of research on captive dolphins reveals much more: 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. One researcher taught two captive bottlenose dolphins a “tandem” command and used it with other commands to ask the dolphins to do things together. Then he taught the dolphins a “create” command: Show me something I haven’t seen before. The very first time the researcher gave his dolphins the “tandem” and “create” commands together, the dolphins dove to the bottom of the pool—apparently for a planning session. A moment later the duo leaped out of the water in perfect sync, both spurting water from their mouths.
Dolphins are even smart enough to train their trainers. One scientist rewarded her study dolphin with a fish when the dolphin responded to commands. If it refused to respond, the scientist turned her back and walked away. One day the scientist accidentally rewarded the dolphin with a spiny-tailed type of fish that the dolphin hated. The dolphin spat it out, swam to the other side of the pool, and hung vertically in the water with her back to the scientist. Time-outs can cut both ways.
Dolphins have such a brainy reputation that some people dream that if we could just create the right computer program to decode their clicks and whistles, we could talk to them. Maybe we could discuss important questions. What is the meaning of life? Do we have free will, or only the illusion of free will? Or ask the really big one: Is the hokey pokey REALLY what it’s all about?
Yes, dolphins are smart. But why are they smart? How did such a sophisticated mind arise in the ocean? A bottlenose dolphin’s brain is three times the size of a chimpanzee’s. What is all that brainpower for?
The answers to these questions can’t be found in a concrete tank. If you want to know why dolphins are smart, you must ask: What is happening out in the wild, in the dolphins’ natural environment? Why does a dolphin need to be smart?
For more than twenty-five years Janet Mann and her colleagues have recorded the lives of hundreds of wild dolphins for the Shark Bay Dolphin Project. Among these dolphins are good mothers and bad, friends and rivals, innovators and failures, charmers and schemers. Using sponges as tools is just one of the astonishingly odd, creative, and intelligent things these wild animals do.
Why are dolphins smart?
The dolphins you are about to meet may have the answers.
Most of what we know about dolphins comes from captive animals, for a very good reason—wild dolphins are difficult to study. They surface, breathe, and vanish. The next sighting might be hundreds of yards away. Although most dolphin behavior happens underwater, snorkeling or scuba diving doesn’t help much. If a human invades the water near a wild dolphin, the animal will either bolt or (less likely) stop and stare. Neither is helpful if you want to see normal dolphin behavior.
In the early 1980s two young Americans scientists, Richard Connor and Rachel Smolker, heard about a spot in Western Australia that offered a unique opportunity to study dolphins in the wild. The directions were simple: Fly to Perth, the most isolated city of its size in the world. Keep the Indian Ocean on your left as you drive north. After a dusty day of dodging kangaroos, arrive at a scruffy fishing camp with a weird name: Monkey Mia. You’ll find lots of wild dolphins . . . and a few of them will even take a fish right out of your hand.
Richard and Rachel had been studying the dolphins around Monkey Mia on and off for several years when Janet arrived in 1988. “The road linking Monkey Mia to the nearest town was dirt in those days, full of potholes,” Janet recalls. “It was night when I got there, and totally dark. Monkey Mia was just a campground with a bunch of tents and lots of snoring.”
The next morning, Janet opened her tent flap. She had a view of pale sand, blue water, and gray fins.
Wild dolphins had visited Monkey Mia for decades, thanks to fishermen who tossed a fish or two to a passing bottlenose. By 1988 a dozen animals regularly visited the beach to accept handouts. It was a dolphin lover’s paradise. “I waded out into the water and a young dolphin came up and started petting me with her pectoral fin,” Janet recalls. “Some of the dolphins loved to play keep-away with bits of sea grass, too. You could swim out with a piece and a dolphin would grab it. Then you had to try to get it back.”
Puck and Nicky, two young females, spent most of their time around Monkey Mia. “Puck was amazingly gentle, always the nice one,” Janet says. “Often Puck would politely accept a fish from a tourist and appear to swallow it.
Then she swam a few meters away and coughed the fish back up. She seemed to be genuinely interested in people. If you dropped a hat in the water, she’d want to play catch with it.”
Nicky, on the other hand, was the nippy one. “Nicky and some of the males would bite people,” Janet says. “Nicky just seemed to be in it for the fish.”
Richard and Rachel had been identifying and observing the dolphins by taking photos of their fins and following the dolphins in a small dinghy. Richard was studying the adult males while Rachel was working on dolphin communication. Janet planned to focus on females and calves.
Shark Bay offered the researchers ideal conditions. The local dolphins were accustomed to small boats, and the calm, shallow water (average depth: sixteen to twenty feet, or five to six meters) made dolphin watching relatively easy. In this remote spot Janet and her colleagues could observe the second-brainiest creature on planet Earth. Figuring out how to make sense of their observations, however, was another matter.
That required the help of African baboons.
As a child, Janet didn’t imagine a future full of blue horizons.
Instead she dreamed of dark shapes moving through the green-filtered light of African forests.
“I wanted to be Jane Goodall,” she says. “I wanted to be a primatologist, someone who studies apes and monkeys.
Everyone made fun of me. They said, ‘It’s just a phase. You’ll grow out of it.’ ”
But she didn’t. Janet wrote to Dr. Goodall and to Jeanne Altmann, a primatologist famous for her studies of savanna baboons. Professor Altmann wrote back, and Janet never forgot that small kindness.
In high school Janet considered becoming an archaeologist (a scientist who studies the remains of past human societies). After all, she reasoned, people are primates too.
Janet landed a summer job measuring deer bones from a prehistoric garbage dump. Unfortunately, she found the work incredibly boring. One afternoon, as she dozed atop her skeleton pile, the archaeologist walked in. Janet jerked awake and tried to look busy.
“Were you sleeping?” her boss asked.
“No,” Janet lied.
“Hmmm.” The archaeologist peered at the deer bone–shaped dents on Janet’s cheeks and forehead. “Janet, maybe archaeology isn’t for you.” Back to apes and monkeys.
As a college student at Brown University, Janet applied to work on a baboon study led by her childhood idol, Jeanne Altmann. Professor Altmann had never allowed anyone as young as Janet to work in Africa, but she recognized Janet’s passion and dedication.
Janet lived for a year in a Kenyan game park filled with lions, leopards, and elephants. She collected data on savanna baboons for Professor Altmann’s long-term mother-infant study.
Professor Altmann was already famous for changing the way scientists look at animals in the wild. A scientist trying to record animal behavior must make decisions, especially when observing animals mingling in a social group. Which ones should be observed?
Which actions should be recorded? Before Professor Altmann, most researchers recorded whatever was most noticeable. Snarling males attract attention. Quietly grooming females don’t.
Imagine that you’re trying to take a sample of jellybeans from a big jar with equal numbers of colored candies. If you grab the eye-catching red while ignoring everything else, you won’t end up with a fair representation of what’s in the jar. In science terms, your cherry jellybeans would be a “biased sample.”
Professor Altmann taught Janet to collect in-depth data on everything that flavored a baboon’s life. All that calm picking-through-each-other’s-fur business was part of a female social network. And social rank (revealed by who groomed whom) mattered. Higher-status female baboons were the most successful moms. They raised the most babies.
Relentless work in a remote place isn’t for everyone, but it can be the lens that focuses the future. “Kenya changed my life,” Janet says simply.
She returned home with wild hair and elephant dung still caked on her shoes. “My family was a little afraid of me,” Janet confesses.
Weeks passed before she could attend a college party without seeing her classmates as hyperactive, hyperweird baboons. Yet she knew she’d found her calling.
She began graduate studies in animal behavior at the University of Michigan. To receive a Ph.D., a graduate student needs a big research project. By coincidence, the University of Michigan had just become involved with a dolphin study in Australia. So Janet, the girl who loved primates, took the long flight west and followed the long road north to a place called Monkey Mia that didn’t have any monkeys.
But it did have dolphins.