Georgetown biology professor’s dolphin research becomes children’s book

Cute Seaworld dolphinProfessor Janet Mann of Georgetown’s biology department has been conducting extensive research on dolphin tool use in Shark Bay in Western Australia. With cute dolphins employing some fascinating survival strategies, Mann’s research is the basis for The Dolphins of Shark Bay by Pamela S. Turner, part of the “Scientists in the Field” children’s book series by the publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The book series is meant both to entertain and inform children about actual scientific research. “I’m thrilled about this opportunity to share my research with a young audience through this book,” Mann told the University. “It’s never too early to start exploring the wonders of the world around us, and I hope it inspires children to become interested in science and nature.”

Vox had the privilege of hearing about Mann’s research last spring during Foundations in Biology II. Mann found that some dolphins living in Shark Bay use sea sponges to search for food on the sea floor. The sponges protect the dolphins’ soft beaks from the rocky sea floor and lets them dig up hiding fish.

The fish living in those regions of Shark Fish Bay do not have swim bladders, which are the main targets of the dolphins’ typical secret weapon: echolocation. Without echolocation, the dolphins can’t see through the sandy bottom and find the fish that way, so the sponges help them stir up the bottom and force the fish out.

Dolphin “sponging” is made even more interesting by the fact that it is a purely learned behavior, with young dolphins depending on their mothers to teach them sponging. Specific groups of dolphins are spongers and others are not, which leads Mann to conclude that sponging is an example of a cultural trait in dolphins.

Dolphins who sponge tend to stay more often with other dolphins who sponge. Dolphins are the only other cliquey animals.

“Like us, they are something far more interesting: creatures with lives juicy with drama and crammed with complications,” the book states. “And their big brains offer them the same thing our big brains offer us: possibilities.”

Photo: Nathan Rupert via Flickr

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