Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Cetacean Census: The Orca Scientists by Kim Perez Valice

Orcas are curious about humans. Some swim over to check out orca scientist Ken Balcomb's 19-foot boat.

On occasion, he says, some whales come over to inspect him while showing off their new calves. "Obviously they can tell the sound of our boat. Even if other boats are around, they come to us as if to say, 'You're here again!'" When Ken peers down over the side, a bull (adult male) stares up at him. Often the two will lock eyes until the bull decides to swim away. There's no mistaking that curiosity is an indication of the depth of the orcas' intelligence. Science necropsies show that the the large brain of an orca contains cortical thickness, a physical trait associated with consciousness, memory, attention, language, and thought.

We humans share that curiosity, fascinated by those large-brained, socially-adapted mammals such as whales, dolphins, elephants, and the great apes, that despite our obvious physical differences, share many of our characteristics. And this is absolutely true of the striking black and white orca, the largest of the dolphins.

Kim Perez Valice's The Orca Scientists (Scientists in the Field Series) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018) portrays the curiosity we humans share about the magnificent orca and their amazing lives in the sea. Like elephants, whales, and others of the dolphin family, the orcas have a matrilineal family social order, often guided by the oldest female, (one leader is even nicknamed "Granny") who presides over the pod, several generations of children and grandchildren, passing down their particular "dialect" of verbal calls that constitutes the orcas' language and their knowledge of where to find food and safety. Child care is a specially curated skill among orcas as well. Family members help feed expectant and nursing mothers and pass down pod culture in distinct calls and a body of hunting skills to young ones.

A Chinook salmon jumps out of the water. When it plunges back, eleven-year-old J-41 (Eclipse) and her one-and-a-half-year-old son, J-51 (Nova), are now near the boat. Eclipse swims to the fish, clamps it in her jaw, and then lets it go. Nova chases the fish, clinches it, and then loses his grip. Eclipse lunges down to the back of the boat, where the salmon is hiding under the motor. With a quick pop she hits the fish with her head to stun it. Eclipse corrals the stunned salmon, moving it closer to her son, who grabs it and bites down.

Since this pod of salmon-feeding orcas have been declining in numbers and in body size, the scientists are keeping close tabs on their well-being, utilizing a wide array of equipment and techniques, from drone flights, fast cameras to capture above and below water activities and the annual mug shots used to keep count of the pods' population, blubber biopsy specimens, blood tests to measure hormones and toxic pollutants, and sonar recorders to catch the orcas' calls, as well as such low-tech means as scat-scenting detector dogs, trained dolphins who act as stand-ins for their cousins in experiments on the amount of energy required in vocalizations, and the human brains who memorize the different dorsal fin and saddle markings of each individual orca for quick identification

With vivid and detailed descriptions, author Valice and photographer Andy Comins take readers along with real orca scientists on the boats in Puget Sound in the chilly northern Pacific to observe the ebb and flow of life among these incredible animals who are so important to the ecology of the oceans of the world. With hundreds of color photos of everything--from breaching matriarchs to orca poop-scoopers--with this book in HMH's peerless Scientists in the Field series, aspiring scientists share the sights, smells, and sensations of doing animal science at very close range to their large marine subjects.

Appended are several useful sections--"How to Get Involved and Stay Involved," a glossary, a list of selected sources, bibliography, author's note, and index--to serve the needs of young research report writers.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home