The Dolphins of Shark Bay

The Dolphins of Shark Bay

by Pamela S. Turner

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Ride alongside the author Pamela S. Turner and her scientific team and meet a cast of dolphin characters large enough (and charismatic enough) to rival a Shakespearean play—Puck, Piccolo, Flute, and Dodger among them. You will fall in love with this crew, both human and finned, as they seek to answer the question: just why are dolphins so smart? And what


Ride alongside the author Pamela S. Turner and her scientific team and meet a cast of dolphin characters large enough (and charismatic enough) to rival a Shakespearean play—Puck, Piccolo, Flute, and Dodger among them. You will fall in love with this crew, both human and finned, as they seek to answer the question: just why are dolphins so smart? And what does their behavior tell us about human intelligence, captive animals, and the future of the ocean? Beautiful photos of dolphins in their natural habitat and a funny, friendly, and fast-paced text make this another winner in the Scientists in the Field series.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"An exemplary addition to an always thought-provoking series."
Kirkus, starred review

"Mann not only provides excellent examples of scientific thinking through the formulation and testing of hypotheses, she also serves as an authentic and engaging role model for girls considering careers in science. . . [An] affecting and vividly photographed work of nonfiction."

"Readers come away with an amazing, if sometimes blurred vision of a culture different from their own . . . A challenging, attractive eye-opener."
School Library Journal, starred review

"There's no shortage of fascinating science in the breezy and engaging narrative. . . While being deliberately anti-mythical about dolphins, the book conveys the wonder of learning more about the intricacy of another species, and readers will be won over by both the dolphins and the sceince."
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, starred review

"The detailed descriptions of the day-to-day activities of the dolphins—all of whom are given names and have distinct personalities—provide a window into the practice of animal behavior studies."
The Horn Book Magazine

School Library Journal
★ 11/01/2013
Gr 5–9—Turner's newest offering tops even her stellar The Frog Scientist (2009) and Project Seahorse (2010, both Houghton Mifflin) as she delineates and explains the research being conducted on a unique clan of dolphins at Shark Bay, Australia. The lucid text reveals the complexities of this cetacean society, first as a whole, then by delving into smaller sets of male groupings and female/calf relationships. Researcher Janet Mason and her team arrived in Shark Bay in 1988, following in the footsteps of Richard Connor and Rachel Smolker, whose initial studies had attracted Mason to this special environment. Turner joined the team in their research expeditions and carefully documents such topics as foraging and hunting techniques, maternal care, social interactions (including sexual behaviors), echolocation, intelligence, and tool use. Individual dolphins get a lot of attention as well-Nicky, a bad mother; Puck, a terrific one; Reggae, a beach hunter; Dodger, an expert sponger, among others. Clear color photos accompany the text, along with two pages of "More About Dolphins," a brief list of books/films (all adult), and a quick update on some of the humans and dolphins mentioned in the book. Readers come away with an amazing, if sometimes blurred vision of a culture different from their own, in an alien environment with language, mores, and behaviors that they can only partially understand, and a crystal clear perspective of scientists trying to interpret what they see. A challenging, attractive eye-opener.—Patricia Manning, formerly at Eastchester Public Library, NY
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-10-01
If dolphins learn how to use tools from their mothers, does that mean they have a culture? This is only one of the interesting questions addressed in this latest entry in the Scientists in the Field series. Unlike their relatives around the world, some dolphins in Shark Bay, in western Australia, use sponges to protect their rostrums while foraging through the channel bottoms for a fish that can't be found through echolocation. The explanation for this behavior was found by scientist Janet Mann and her colleagues, who have been studying these dolphins for more than 25 years, observing their actions, charting their lives and even using DNA samples to determine lineage. Turner's narrative takes readers on board the research boat Pomboo to follow the dolphins for several days as they hunt, nurse, play tag and other games, practice herding and mounting, fight and pet one another affectionately. Smoothly woven into the text are facts about dolphin life and evolution as well as methods of scientific observation. This fascinating window into their complicated society ("a juvenile dolphin's world resembles middle school. But with sharks") is illustrated with clearly identified photographs of the dolphins as well as the scientists. The account is followed by solid suggestions for further research, including encouragement to try reading scientific papers. An exemplary addition to an always thought-provoking series. (more about dolphins, latest news, index) (Nonfiction. 10-15)
Children's Literature - Judy Crowder
Dolphins are fascinating! Scientists are learning more and more about dolphin behavior and intelligence, described as “legendary,” according to this book, part of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s “Scientists in the Field” series. The author zeros in on Janet Mann, a biologist who studies dolphins in and around the area of Shark Bay, off the coast of Western Australia. There is so much to see and learn! Most of what we know about these marine mammals comes from dolphins in captivity. Why? Because dolphins in the wild are harder to study. But Mann and her colleges are working to change that. They go out in boats in the bay to make their observations. The scientists know the dolphins by name and they can tell if “new” dolphins have come to Shark Bay. Their research includes observing dolphins with newly born calves—and some are better at mothering than others. More exciting, the scientists see and record some interesting behavior that helps to unlock new information about dolphin intelligence. For example, some dolphins engage in sponging: the dolphin harvests a sea sponge and holds it over its nose when foraging for food in the rocky bottoms. This protects their sensitive noses from scrapes and cuts. The dolphin typically drops the sponge when it nabs a fish. Scientist see and record complex social behavior such as grouping to protect calves, females coming together to thwart males herding females, and groups tagged as the popular and not so popular crowds. Readers who dream of becoming marine mammal biologists should find these detailed accounts of field work fascinating. Compelling text and dramatic photo illustrations combine to make this book the closest thing to being there. Reviewer: Judy Crowder; Ages 10 up.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Scientists in the Field Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
9.10(w) x 10.90(h) x 0.50(d)
890L (what's this?)
Age Range:
10 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
Mystery Dolphin

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.

Chapter Two
Monkey Mia

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.
   Big mistake.
   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.

Meet the Author

Pamela S. Turner has a master’s degree in public health from the University of California, Berkeley, and a special interest in microbiology and epidemiology. Her articles for children and adults have appeared in numerous scientific publications. Her books include Hachiko: The True Story of a Loyal Dog, Gorilla Doctors, The Frog Scientist, Dolphins of Shark Bay, and Project Seahorse. She lives in California.

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