Sunday, March 20, 2005

Mystery Of The Silver Rings

The young dolphin gives a quick flip of her head, and an undulating silver ring appears--as if by magic--in front of her. The ring is a solid, toroidal bubble two feet across--and yet it does not rise to the surface! It stands erect in the water like the rim of a magic mirror, or the doorway to an unseen dimension. For long seconds the dolphin regards its creation, from varying aspects and angles, with its vision and sonar. Seemingly making a judgement, the dolphin then quickly pulls a small silver donut from the larger structure, which collapses into small bubbles. She then "pushes" the donut, which stays just inches ahead of her rostrum, perhaps 20 feet over a period of up to 10 seconds. Then, stopping again, she regards the twisting ring for a last time and bites it--causing it to collapse into a thousand tiny bubbles which head--as they should--for the water's surface. After a few moments of reflection, she creates another.

This isn't fantasy, it's real. And it isn't magic, just marvelous. It is a rare dolphin behavior, and we first saw it in the play of two baby dolphins. It gives us a little more insight into the superb level of control dolphins can exercise on their water environment, and underscores the fact that we can still discover things about dolphins by simply watching them.

I first saw this behavior on one of my relatively rare trips out to the Delphis lab; the project's principle scientist Ken Marten said that "the two babies, Tinkerbell and Maui" had been doing it for a little while. My reaction: "Wow, neato. How the heck do they DO that? Try to get some photo and video shots of it. It sure is cool". Ken, along with Suchi Psarakos, Research Assistant and computer programmer, did indeed document the silver rings (although video and photos don't do the rings justice), and this has made it possible to both analyze the physics behind the phenomenon and to watch the dolphins do this trick in slow-motion.

As it turned out, small silver rings weren't the only toys the dolphins were making for themselves: some of the creations were as large as a basketball rim. And Tinkerbell proved able to create a silver helix, spiraling perhaps 20 feet long, that would spring into life in a fraction of a second and remain stable in the water as she swam past, observing it with sonar and vision. then--presto! she would grab a small silver ring from the helix to play with, while the rest of the helix degraded into bubbles which would belatedly "remember" to rise to the surface.

Creation of these rings by dolphins isn't new. (far from it--dolphins were probably blowing magnificent silver rings while our anscestors were hanging off tree limbs). It does seem to be a relatively rare behavior, though: it has been seen before only in a specific group of dolphins documented by Diana Reiss and Jan Ostman at Marine World. "The fact that ring-blowing is rare and that we have two babies doing it suggests that one baby learned it from the other", comments Ken Marten. "Whether it was a case of observational learning, or one "taught" the other, we don't know... but it'd sure be interesting to know."

The social situation also seems to affect ring-blowing: " The babies made them most intensely when they were the only two dolphins in the tank and when there was only one adult. The behavior stopped entirely when they were outnumbered by adults, " observed Suchi. "During one intense session with Tinkerbell there were often two or three rings visible in the tank at one time. She frequently swam over to me in an excited state, then went and made some more."

The reaction to our documentation of these rings has been universal--people are fascinated by them. Dr. Ken Norris, the world's leading expert on dolphins, had never seen it before. Robert Wolff of Apple Computer's Advanced Design Group made a "quicktime" movie of ring-blowing for display on Mac computers. Arthur C. Clarke, Earthtrust Advisory Board member, thought they were wonderful--but debated my offered contention that they might be the first "extraterrestrial art", pointing to interesting "artistic" achievements by other nonhuman animals.

For myself, I do consider these rings to be "art": the creation and observation of artifacts by a nonhuman mind, with no use other than entertainment and aesthetics. One must be constantly wary not to anthropomorphize the actions of other species--to treat them as though they were human. But after watching a dolphin create one of these kinetic sculptures--observe it from many angles--and then destroy it with a bite--it seems a long leap of logic to ascribe any other motive.

This can, and will, be debated... but the beauty of the rings is beyond debate. As evidence mounts for "self awareness" and other "intelligent" qualities in dolphins, I think that it must cause us again to ask the question: what are these creatures, that they spin silver lariats for the sheer joy of creation? And what sort of creatures are we, if we cannot appreciate and protect them?