Young bottlenose dolphin Potter cocks his head sideways to look at something between wiggling and rolling across the water surface like a horse following a carrot. What a surprise his “carrot” turned out to be.
“It is not the life of simplicity but the life of multiplicity that wise men warn us of,” claimed Anne Morrow Lindbergh, daughter of a diplomat and wife of America’s pioneering pilot Charles Lindbergh. Indeed, humans are regularly warned to worship the spirit instead of material goods.
But how can we help it? Humans are the most advanced toolmakers and tool handlers in the animal kingdom. From your comb to your car, it is not surprising that the number of objects you encounter and handle every day is staggering and probably incalculable.
Yet object manipulation in the animal kingdom, defined as handling or otherwise interacting with something encountered in one’s environment, is a rare and significant event.
Many items that can be handled do not constitute animal object manipulation. Members of one’s species (conspecifics) can be handled, such as horses grooming each other, but conspecifics are not included in object manipulation.
Food can also be handled, and in many cases must be handled to be consumed. But food is generally excluded as well. There are delicious exceptions, though. South American capuchin monkeys, which look like cats with human faces, have an instinctive pounding behavior: Give them a walnut and get out of the way!
When animals handle objects outside of obligatory forces like feeding, it is fascinating because it hints at how they think. For example, the dolphins outside your doorstep mainly handle objects when excited by other dolphins.
They play Catch with horsetails, the mangrove seedpods that stagger through autumn currents like solemn pencils. They toss fish or rays into the air and retrieve them with theatrical lunges or a dramatic backward gesture that resembles kicking back into a reclining chair.
They even “dress up” when excited by other dolphins, a timely note this Halloween week and understandable to humans and their extensive wardrobes.
Dressing up is a particularly compelling form of object manipulation in the animal kingdom because it is so rare. Some people think that elephants are dressing up when they throw hay or dirt on their backs as sunscreen. The giant orange apes of Indonesia, orangutans wear giant jungle leaves as rain hats and are thus dressing, though maybe not dressing up. Local bottlenose dolphins seem to be dressing up when they sling grass across the front of their fins when aroused by stimulating social situations.
Another interesting glimpse of how local bottlenose dolphins think surfaced in early October, compliments of Potter, the 2-year-old calf of visiting female Penny. Potter had been putzing around looking for things to do while his mom foraged some distance away. This is typical behavior of calves his age that are learning to hunt but still supported on mother’s milk. Little Potter sprinted here and there, visiting passing boats and even trying to surf the least promising wavelets. He made several bids to get us to accelerate so he could surf.
At one point, he took up the starboard wingman position to our research boat and engaged us with a variety of body position changes. He lay underwater on his side, eyeing us. He poked up into a vertical position in classic spyhopping behavior, and then cocked his head sideways looking at something. He glided just under the water surface, his light gray body a silhouette of ripples against the dark green water. He corkscrewed, his even lighter belly flashing for a moment against the jade background as he looked skyward.
When the time came, Capt. John Heidemann began to pull away from Potter very slowly to head towards his mom in the distance. Potter persisted in his wingman position as we went, an unusual thing for a dolphin to do. He wiggled and rolled en route, which is not unusual. But he also periodically snapped at something en route like a horse straining to reach a moving carrot. We could not make it out for there was no object in sight.
No solid object, anyway. When I realized what little Potter’s “carrot” was, I involuntarily guffawed. He was trying to grab the shadow of our flag on the water surface!
Let us end as we began, with a thought by Anne Morrow Lindbergh: “I must remember to see with island eyes.”
Dr. Weaver studies wild dolphins under federal permit 16299, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website www.goodnaturedstatistics.com. NOAA advises anyone who sees a stranded dolphin in the Gulf of Mexico to call 877-942-5343 or 877-433-8299.