After All, With A 20 Pound Brain, What Does A Sperm Whale Know?

Ed Raymond

Perhaps because I was a farm kid  surrounded by spiders, horses, geese, maggots, pigs, rats, chickens, cats, bullheads, cows, rabbits , squirrels, snakes, dogs, honey bees, crows, and hundreds of other things with brains and nerves, I have been fascinated enough to keep files on what animals, insects, birds, and other creepy-crawlies do.

For an English literature class in college I read T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem about a man with a number of personal problems. This line, among many others, has stuck with me: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”  For centuries humans with three-pound brains have been tossing live lobsters with smaller brains into boiling water to prepare a meal, saying  the ragged-clawed monsters feel no pain because of their different “nervous system.” 

Well, modern lobster tossers are not sure now, because scientific experts such as Dr. Robert Elwood of Queen’s College say lobsters try to avoid heat but there is no way yet to examine their nervous system.  In fact, Switzerland has passed an “animal dignity” law which requires a more humane way of handling certain animals, including lobsters. The law recommends two methods of killing lobsters: electrocution or sedation by dipping the lobster into salt water before sticking a knife through the brain. The state doesn’t say how salt water makes it dream so quickly. And, do you strap the lobster into a little electric chair before zapping it? Charlotte Gill, owner of Maine’s legendary Lobster Pound, may have a better idea for both lobsters and angry cooks. She says blowing marijuana smoke on the lobster sedates them while easing the pain of both lobster and cook before tossing it into the boiling pot. However, no “high” lobster has had his pre-death interview yet.

The Case Of Dindim And His Foster Father

We don’t know very much about our fellow inhabitants. Five years ago retired bricklayer Joao Pereira de Souza of Rio de Janeiro was walking on the beach and found a young penguin close to death because of oil. He took it home, cleaned up the feathers, and fed him a diet of fish for a week. He then took the penguin he named Dindim down to the beach to release it. Dindim refused to leave for eleven months. Then it was time to breed and Dindim left. But he has returned to Joao’s beach for five years and spends eight months a year with him. In a TV interview, Joao said: “I love the penguin like it was my own child and I believe Dindim loves me. No one is allowed to touch him. He lays on my lap, lets me give him showers, allows me to feed him sardines, and to pick him up. He arrives in June and leaves in February every year—and he becomes more affectionate and happier each time he sees me. When sees me he wags his tail like a dog and honks with delight.” Some day we may know why.

Some day we may also understand why an orca whale named Tahlequah and J-35 on the researcher’s chart carried her dead calf on her back for 17 days and over a thousand miles before finally releasing her. The calf had died shortly after birth. Millions around the world followed her grieving on social media. J-35 has recovered and is back with her pod.

The Case Of Smartass Inky And Other High IQ Octopi

An octopus named Inky was quite popular in New Zealand’s National Aquarium, but one night he removed the drain cover in his tank floor, slipped into the large pipe that ran to the ocean and disappeared. A few studies have revealed that octopi are very good at problem-solving and determining objects of different sizes, colors, textures, and brightness. They travel through mazes with ease, and with all their tentacles can unscrew jar lids of food they like. They also display short-term and long-term memory skills that last for several months. Octopi have eight legs, three hearts and a brain about equal to a three year-old child, 

In one incident fish kept in a covered tank next to a covered tank holding an octopus kept disappearing.  The researchers couldn’t figure it out, so they finally put a camera in the aquarium room. The octopus had figured out how to lift his cover, go to the fish tank and lift that cover, capture and eat a fish, then close the fish tank cover, crawl into his tank—and close that cover.

If octopi don’t like a worker they often squirt water at them. Octopi don’t like bright lights. In a New Zealand aquarium they learned to short out electric lights by squirting water at them. 

The Case Of Water-Skiing Twiggy And The Paintings Of Pigcasso

The paintings of Picasso often bring in millions at international auctions although I have never understood why. I cannot tell the difference between the paint splotches of Picasso and the paint splotches of Pigcasso, a competitor in the art markets who now gets thousands for her paintings. Pigcasso is a 300-pound Berkshire sow that was rescued from a butchershop in South Africa and now resides in an animal sanctuary. We raised Berkshire pigs on our farm so I know how friendly and smart they are. They often came around for a hello and a good scratch.

The director of the sanctuary said they tried everything from soccer balls to paint brushes to entertain her.  The pig fixated on paint brushes and learned to dip them into pots of paint. The rest is art history. Now named Pigcasso, her paintings sell for as much as $4,000 with the proceeds going to animal welfare. The Swiss watchmaker Swatch has put one of her paintings on a watch face. The limited edition “Flying Pig by Ms. Pigcasso sells for $120. Pigcasso is classified by art experts as an abstract expressionist.

I have a love-hate relationship with the red and grey squirrels that try to dominate my bird feeders. I love to watch their unequalled athletic ability to grab a sunflower seed and then turn the skies into death-defying snatch and grabs at tree branches.  I hate them when they problem-solve another squirrel-proof bird feeder that I have to trash. As a farm kid a cousin and I hunted squirrels and turned them into delicious stews.

Have you ever had the chance to watch Twiggy the water-skiing squirrel? Forty years ago Chuck and Lou Ann Best of Sanford, Florida raised an orphan squirrel after a hurricane. It became a family pet. They taught it to water-ski on foam skis behind a remote-controlled boat in their swimming pool. In forty years they have raised eight other squirrels named Twiggy to perform the act. The Twiggys have appeared on many TV shows and in seven movies. The couple has now retired and turned the show over to their son. The current Twiggy is ten years old and is also retiring. The son has now trained another Twiggy and two other squirrels, Twig Jr and Roxie the Lifeguard, to add to a Twiggy show. It takes about a year to train a new Twiggy.

Here’s Something To Crow About

Crows and ravens are some of the smartest birds but don’t quite reach the verbal intelligence level of parrots. I rarely see crows on our ordinary bird feeders. Our local crows act as if they are members of the One Percent. Years ago we enjoyed a pair of ravens for a few years. My favorite raven story comes from Anchorage, Alaska where it sometimes gets cold for birds. On very cold days ravens have been known to fly to street lights, cover the light sensors with their wings so the light is turned on, and then bask in the heat of the bulb.

Crows have been known to make tools to catch insects and worms. A French theme park has trained six crows to pick up cigarette butts and other rubbish. After they deposit the garbage in a box, another box opens and gives them a treat. The crows in Sendai, Japan love nuts but some are almost impossible to crack. The crows put them down in the streets and have cars run over them. A quick dash gives them the meat. New Caledonian crows have learned to use up to four components in assembling tools to use in reaching into holes and tree bark. Harvard University’s Irene Pepperberg, who has taught a parrot named Alex over 100 English words, has researched these crows and proudly crows about them: “These crows are just amazing.” In other words, birds are much more than birdbrains. Just before Alex the talking parrot died at age 31, he told his lifelong teacher and friend: “You be good. See you tomorrow. I love you.” Alex had a brain the size of a shelled walnut.

   Crows have been observed performing last rites for a member of the flock that dies. The entire flock gathers around the body and caws loudly to the universe.

So What Can An Animal Do That has A 20-pound Brain?

An adult sperm whale has a brain that weighs seven times what ours weighs. Because the oceans are its feeding and play grounds, we really don’t know much about them. Observers say they display humanlike characteristics such as penetrating curiosity and playfulness. Sperm whales tend to fool around with photographers who swim near them. They have never attacked a human or tried to fulfill the Jonah bit. Sperms live in groups and communicate with click-like sounds. We humans have not cracked the code yet. They do not like loud sounds or bubbles near them. To escape them they will often dive down thousands of feet. Since whaling started we have killed millions of whales from the dozens of species. We have used their oil, meat, and blubber without spending much time to study them.

Why We Need To Study Our Neighbors On Earth

Every year we kill 9.5 million animals in the U.S. to feed ourselves. We know very little about what goes into our stomachs. Researchers claim all humans in the world consume about 440 million tons of meat and fish annually. Some of our friends are busy eating each other at the same time. Whales feed on 300 million to 550 million tons of seafood, from plankton to other whales. The world’s seabirds consume about 77 million tons of fish and other species of seafood. The University of Basel in Switzerland conducted this study. Perhaps the most surprising statistic in “The Science of Nature” refers to the 45,000 species of spiders and their diets. The study claims that spiders alone eat between 440 million to 880 million tons of bugs, pests, and other things every year. It’s also interesting that about 10,000 different species feed exclusively on spiders! On the other hand, only six humans are killed by sharks per year while in return we kill between 100 million and 273 million sharks from 465 known species.

We need to know a lot more about the world we live in and on.