Archive for May, 2012

Save the Whales (From Themselves)

May 26, 2012

That the largest mammals on Earth—some weighing as much as 200 tons—may periodically commit mass suicide is a disturbing phenomenon, but not a phenomenon new enough to attribute to global warming, ocean pollution, or human technology. Scientists estimate that whales have been dying as a result of mass beaching for millions of years. Aristotle commented on the phenomenon’s occurrence in the northern hemisphere more than 2,000 years ago. In recent history such events have been witnessed on numerous occasions in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. 

Some scientists believe that simultaneous deaths of entire herds are accidental “strandings,” that the topography of the planet is to blame, that these whales swim into what amount to “natural traps.” They think the hypothesized strandings are due to a flaw in the mammals’ echolocation function, that whales are ill-equipped to detect a gently sloping ocean floor. However, other sea creatures, such as dolphins, are also known to die in mass beachings. Are they all imperiled by flawed bio-sonar equipment? 

Is echolocation the only mechanism whales have to guide them through the oceans? No. Through an additional sense of gravity, whales are equipped to feel their depth and control their buoyancy to dive as deep as two miles or travel along at or near the surface. Sensory systems, some not fully understood, equip them to navigate in all directions. The idea that whales are unable, under all weather conditions, to detect a sloping ocean floor and sense it as a hazard is untenable, although it is likely that some cetacean deaths are traceable to navigational error. 

Topographical zones that scientists consider natural traps for unwitting whales are areas also perceivable as convenient for mass suicide if whales may be so inclined. Are whales, dolphins, and porpoises intelligent and self-aware enough to feel depressed and develop suicidal inclination? Overall, it is obvious that these animals are just as well equipped to survive in the oceans as comparably intelligent creatures are equipped to survive on land. Whales, porpoises, and dolphins all display creativity, employ language, and evidence enculturation. They pursue complex play, use creative thinking in response to challenging stimuli, and engage in species-preservation behaviors. 

Whales exhibit a wide range of emotions: from loneliness, grief, and depression to compassion and joy. Cetaceans can be mentally well, and they can be mentally ill. It is not unreasonable to think that whales occasionally desire self-destruction via either solitary or group actions. Given the level of their intelligence, and their long-recognized inclination to engage in social learning and cooperative group activities, it is also scientifically supportable to conclude that they are capable of committing mass suicide and that they would do so in topographical zones facilitating such behavior. 

Based on firsthand experience with a California sea lion, PluribusOne™ is certain that both mammals residing in the oceans and land-based mammals share all the same aspects of consciousness. If brain-and-cognitive scientists accept this truth as a working hypothesis, the discovery process will accelerate. In time science may be equipped to identify whales, porpoises, dolphins, as well as sea lions, seals, and walruses at risk of harming themselves and their families due to depression and also equipped to treat these highly-intelligent, emotional, and spirited animals psychotherapeutically—perhaps even teach them to provide such treatment to one another.