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Outdoors & Recreation
Dolphin Watch
No Predictable Path to Motherhood
Article published on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013
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[Image]
Photo by ANN WEAVER
The one thing a young female bottlenose dolphin is most likely to do on the twisting path to motherhood is “take a bow or two” as AM launches here. This pretty maneuver can be used in ambivalence or avoidance around suitors.
A surprising thing about the world of hard data is that it includes soft misty measures. These are things we easily see in other people but cannot easily turn into data.

Misty measures abound because people are not robots. We come in all shapes and sizes when it comes to misty measures like motivation, ambition, perseverance, determination, success and intelligence.

Intelligence is measured in units of IQ. But you do not have a number of IQ’s in your head that I can count like marbles.

This has been a problem since the last century when French psychologist Binet was asked to develop a way to identify French children whose mental shortfalls required special schooling. His test was later revised at Stanford here in America and remains to this day as the classic Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales.

The Scales are currently in their fifth iteration. This is not because intelligence is evolving. It is because our ability to measure intelligence is evolving.

Our idea of intelligence was expanded in the 1980s and 1990s by Howard Gardner, who applied the operative term “multiple” to intelligence. He argued that intelligence itself comes in all shapes and sizes, including linguistic, musical, logical, spatial, physical and social.

If we cannot figure out how to measure our own intelligence, how can we ever recognize and measure intelligent behavior in other species? What about a species that lives in an environment so alien that it can kill a person in hours? I refer to the sea.

At sea with free-ranging dolphins, I search for behavior that argues for or against their reputation for intelligence. As observers watching from a boat, we only glimpse the fraction of their lives dolphins bring to the surface when they breathe. The search for dolphin intelligence at sea can feel like a fool’s journey.

Nonetheless, looking broadly like a mountain surveyor appraising the valley below, I may have a reflection of dolphin intelligence. It is the utter lack of patterning in the development of a young dolphin mother.

Consider four females I have happily watched grow from calves to mothers: ten-year-old Stick and her nine-year-old counterparts Bet, Slightwin and Sharkey.

Their stories give no sign of “preprogrammed experiences” that guarantee that all females will develop the crucial mothering skills that safeguard the dolphin community like assembly-line clones. Each mother took a different path to motherhood.

Stick was weaned abruptly when her mother disappeared and spent many months alone. She eventually regained her former social self and took up with local bottlenose bulls we call the Bowery Boys. She spent so many months with them that we wondered if she was a he or a “tomboy.”

Stick had her first calf two years ago. Savannah was sturdy and survived an entire year under Stick’s cavalier mothering but then vanished like most of the calves born in 2011. Stick left the study area briefly, came back pregnant and gave birth in September this year. Her mothering skills have somewhat improved and we wish the best of luck to her little “Twig.”

Only Stick took the tomboy path. Unlike the others, Slightwin stayed with her mother six years, longer than any other calf. After she weaned, she either joined or was pulled into a new social circle. Local bulls N and BB swam with and fought over Slightwin unceasingly for months. Their courtship gave us countless intelligent behaviors, including grass wearing, fish tossing and food sharing.

Slightwin had her first calf in 2012. She and her newborn developed a terrible condition that looked like they had been spattered with oil, a condition I have seen neither before nor since. Her baby did not survive long and she returned to a lively social life of much male and female company.

In contrast, Bet became a rather solitary female after she weaned from mom at 4 years of age, traveling alone or in small groups of mothers and calves. Bet was sometimes chased away by dolphins and even sustained a few bouts of rough treatment usually reserved for newly weaned males.

She periodically returned to her mom, good ol’ Tanks. Dolphin Watch reported a rare moment when Bet swam with bull Riptab and showed shy coquettishness towards him, giving a glimpse of her social side that pulled at the heartstrings. That is when she got pregnant.

Bet’s firstborn Ballou was born in 2011, same as Stick’s calf. Bet’s calf triumphed over disease and shark attack, in large part because Bet was a model mom despite being socially marginalized. Bet was the only mom I have seen actively trying to remove a taunting remora from her calf, which says Bet is smart enough to take someone else’s perspective.

Sharkey became an even greater loner than Bet after she weaned from her mom, so it was hard to know if she was socially marginalized. She marginalized herself. If we glimpsed the flash of a fin and managed to find its owner, it was often Sharkey.

She spent her pre-motherhood in hidden bays off the beaten path of boats. One day, she came rushing across the seas with a number of suitors hot on her heals. This summer, she had her firstborn and was the first of the local lady dolphins to give birth. She now ushers young Echo at her side. A loner less frequently these days, she still tends to hover at the outskirts of other social groups.

I could go on. The path to successful motherhood is not guaranteed despite its importance. In John’s Pass, dolphin motherhood shows no sign of clone-like or robotic behavior. That suggests intelligence to me if for no other reason than it takes brains to come in all shapes and sizes.

Dr. Weaver studies wild dolphins under federal permit 16299, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Send her an email at annstats54@gmail.com 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.
Article published on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013
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