The Courier-Journal from Louisville, Kentucky on June 1, 1992 · Page 7
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The Courier-Journal from Louisville, Kentucky · Page 7

Louisville, Kentucky
Issue Date:
Monday, June 1, 1992
Page 7
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MONDAY, JUNE 1, 1992 Sdence Foruin NO MORE MR. NICE GUY BY NATALIE ANGER The writer is with The New York Times. As much as puppies or pandas or even children, dolphins are universally beloved. They seem to cavort and frolic at the least provocation, their mouths are fixed in what looks like a state of perpetual merriment and their behavior and enormous brains suggest an intelligence approaching that of humans or even, some might argue, surpassing it. Dolphins are turning out to be exceedingly clever, but not in the loving, Utopian-socialist manner that sentimental Flipper-ophiles might have hoped. Researchers observing the behavior of bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Australia have discovered that the males form social alliances with one another that are far more sophisticated and devious than any seen in animals apart from human beings. They have found that one team of male dolphins will recruit the help of another team of males to gang up on a third group, a sort of multitiered battle plan that scientists said requires considerable mental calculus to work out. But the purpose of these complex alliances is not exactly sportive. Males collude with their peers as a way of stealing fertile females from competing dolphin bands. And after they have succeeded in spiriting a female away, the males remain in their tight-knit group to assure that the female stays in line, performing a series of feats that are at once spectacular and threatening. Two or three males will surround the female, leaping and bellyflopping and somersaulting, all in perfect synchrony. Should the female be so unimpressed by the choreography as to attempt to flee, the males will chase her, bite her, slap her with their fins or slam into her. The scientists call this effort to control females "herding," but they acknowledge that the word does not convey the aggressiveness of the act. "Sometimes the female is obviously trying to escape, and the noises start to sound like they're hurting each other," said Dr. Rachel Smolker of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "The hitting sounds really hard, and the female may end up with tooth-rake marks." Smolker, Dr. Andrew Richards and Dr. Richard Connor, who is now at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, said that while marine biologists have long been impressed with the intelligence and social complexity of bottlenose dolphins the type of porpoise often used in marine mammal shows because they are so responsive to trainers they were nonetheless surprised by the intricacy of the males' machinations. Many male primates, including chimpanzees and baboons, are known to form into gangs to attack rival camps, but scientists have never before seen one group of animals soliciting a second to go after a third. More impressive, the two-part alliances among dolphins seem to be extremely flexible, shifting from day to day, depending on the dolphins' neds, whether or not one group owes a fa- r to another. The creatures seem to be highly opportunistic, which means that each animal must always be computing who is friend and who is foe. "If you think of an interaction between DDT FOR DESSERT? BY WILLIAM McCALL The writer is with The Associated Press. The letters TNT and PCB mean danger to people. But to a common forest fungus, they mean dinner. White-rot fungus "eats" the chemical compounds that make up the explosive TNT and cancer-causing PCBs and turns them into harmless carbon dioxide and water. Scientists are trying to find out what else they can put on the fungus' menu, now that researchers at the Oregon Graduate Institute have figured out how the organism works. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is especially interested. "Is it going to be a silver bullet for us? I sure can't say at this point," said John Barich, an EPA researcher at the agency's regional office in Seattle. "But we're certainly extremely interested in any bioremediation schemes," Barich said. "In general, in that field of research and product development, they've started slowly but they're finding they're getting better and better results." Bioremediation is the word scientists use for cleaning up the environment with living organisms such as bacteria, and now, fungi. However, biological agents have remained mostly experimental, with little commercial value. "The most promising market for bioremediation so far has been to clean up oil and gasoline spills," said Owen Kean, spokesman for the Chemical Manufactur groups that is predictably hostile, it doesn't seem to require much gray matter to know where you stand," said Connor. "But when you have situations always changing between alliances, you get the soap-opera effect. 'What did he do with her today?' 'Should we go after them tomorrow?'" The biologists also have evidence that females form sophisticated alliances in an effort to thwart male encroachment and that bands of females will chase after an alliance of males that has stolen one of their friends from the fold. But female dolphin behavior is usually more subtle than the male theatrics, and hence less easily deciphered, particularly under conditions of studying animals that spend much of their time underwater. But lest it seem that dolphins are little more than thugs with fins and a blowhole, biologists emphasize that they are in general remarkably good-natured animals and usually live up to their reputation as sportive, easygoing and communal. "When you put them into a captive situation, they're like little puppy dogs," said Dr. Kenneth Norris, professor emeritus of the University of California at Santa Cruz and one of the world's authorities on dolphin behavior. "Sure, sometimes they'll bite, but it's not like trying to train a leopard. They're orders of magnitude more peaceful than that." Most of the 30 species of dolphins and small whales are extremely social, forming into schools of anywhere from several to hundreds of mammals, which periodically break off into smaller clans and then come back together again in what is called a fission-fusion society. Among other things, their sociality seems to help them evade sharks and to forage for fish more effectively. Species such as the bottlenose and the spinner dolphins make most of their decisions by consensus, spending hours dawdling in a protected bay, nuzzling each other and generating an eerie nautical symphony of squeaks, whistles, barks, twangs and clicks. The noises crescendo ever louder, until they reach a pitch that apparently indicates the vote is unanimous and it is time to take action say, to go out and fish. "When they're coordinating their decisions, it's like an orchestra tuning up, and it gets more impassioned and more rhythmic," said Norris. "Democracy takes time, and they spend hours every day making decisions." As extraordinary as their music is, scientists have not found evidence that dolphins possess what can rightfully be called a complex language, where a dolphin can clearly say to another, "Let's go fishing." "We've yet to come up with much context that is specific to any of the sounds," said Norris. But the vocalizations are not completely random. Researchers have determined that each bottlenose dolphin appears to have its own call sign a signature whistle unique to that creature. Whistles are generated internally and sound more like a radio signal than a human whistle. The mother seems to teach her calf what its whistle will be by repeating the sound over and over. The calf retains that whistle, squealing it out at times as though declaring its presence. More impressive, one dolphin may occasionally imitate the whistle of a companion, in essence calling the friend's name. ers Association in Washington, D.C. But Michael Glaser at the EPA's Risk Reduction Engineering Laboratory in Cincinnati has already used the fungus to break down wood-product waste at a former mill site in Brookhaven, Miss. "I don't want to oversell it, but it looks promising," said Glaser. "We already have the fungal technology ; ASSOCIATED PRESS That Is a beaker of whHe-rot fungus being observed by Dr. Michael Gold, a biologist at the Oregon Graduate Institute. The stuff "eats" such things as TNT and PCBs. in the field and have it working at a scale that might prove useful." Glaser said initial data at the site showed that white-rot fungi removed up to 85 percent of toxic pentachlorophenol within 56 days. The chemical was used with creosote to treat telephone poles to make them resistant to decay. The fungus, which is found in North America, Russia and Scandinavia, apparently breaks down the toxic chemicals much the way it does lignin, a natural substance that gives wood its strength. "It was a fortuitous discovery," said research-team leader Michael Gold, who has been studying lignin for more than 15 Everybody loves bottlenose dolphins. But could these be the faces of shrewd, conniving, opportunistic, churlish mammals? In a word, yes. But dolphin researchers warn against glorifying dolphins beyond the realm of mammaldom. "Everybody who's done research in the field is tired of dolphin lovers who believe these creatures are floating hobbits," said Karen Pryor, a dolphin trainer and scientist who lives in North Bend, Wash. "A dolphin is a healthy social mammal, and it behaves like one, including doing things that we don't find particularly charming." Dolphins become particularly churlish when they want to mate, or to avoid being mated. Female bottlenose dolphins bear a single calf only once every four or five years, so a fertile female is a prized commodity to the males. Because there is almost no size difference between the sexes, a single female cannot be forced to mate by a lone male. That may be part of the reason males team into gangs. In the latest research on bottlenose dolphins, Connor and his colleagues spent the last 10 years studying a network of about 300 dolphins in Shark Bay, in Western Australia, and devoted 25 months to observing male behavior in detail. They followed dolphins around in a 12-foot dinghy, identifying individuals by the scar patterns on their fins and recording their whistles and clicks whenever possible. The researchers have discovered that early in adolescence, a male bottlenose will form an unshakeable alliance with one or two other males. These dolphins stick together for years and perhaps a life- lift years. In 1991, his lab figured out the way white-rot fungus breaks down dioxins, byproducts of the paper-manufacturing process, and 2,4-dichlorophenol, a precursor to Agent Orange, which was used to thin out the jungle during the Vietnam War. The discovery led to research on ni-troaromatic compounds, or ring-shaped molecules heavily used by the chemical industry as building blocks for products such as polyurethane, herbicides, dyes, pharmaceuticals and TNT. AsMclatod Pms time swimming, fishing and playing together, and flaunting their fast friendship by always traveling abreast and surfacing in exact synchrony. Sometimes that simple pair or triplet is able to woo a fertile female on its own, although what happens once the males have herded in a female, and whether she goes for one or all of them, is not yet known: the researchers have yet to witness a dolphin copulation. At other times potential mates are scarce, and male alliances grow obstreperous. That is when pairs or triplets may seek to steal females from other groups. To do that, they seek out another alliance of lonely bachelors, and somehow persuade that pair or triplet of dolphins to join in the venture. The researchers are not yet sure what signals the males use to recruit outside aid, but they believe the supplicants use their pectoral fins to stroke the males from which they need assistance, or perhaps give them a few gentle pecks. That buddy-buddy spirit, however, may be fleeting. Two groups of dolphins that cooperated one week may be adversaries the next, as a pair of males switches sides to help a second group of dolphins pilfer the same female they had helped the now-defending males capture in the first place. How many of these encounters involve relatives ganging up against non-relatives is not yet known. The researchers hope soon to begin doing DNA fingerprinting on the dolphins to determine family trees. New York Times Ntwt Service PUMPING GAS Scientists say tests show it is possible to prevent more deadly carbon-dioxide releases like the ones from two volcanic lakes in Cameroon that killed more than 1,800 people in the 1980s. The gas-charged water seeps into the bottom of Lake Monoun and Lake Nyos and is trapped by pressure from the water above. In 1984, gas burst from the bottom of Lake Monoun and suffocated 37 people. A much larger gas release in August 1986 at Lake Nyos killed more than 1,746 people about 12 miles away. The danger of another deadly release increases as gas builds up. During a two-week experiment at Lake Monoun earlier this spring, scientists sank pipes into the 300-foot-deep lake to see if gas-charged water could be coaxed to the surface. John Fonji, a geologist with Cameroon's Ministry of Mines, Water and Energy, said water shot to the surface and gushed like a "a bottle of beer when opened." In fact, the water continued flowing even the pump used to prime the action was turned off. So the pressure that has created the hazard could be used to eliminate the threat of another carbon-dioxide release, the scientists say. Pipes could be anchored in the middle of the lakes, using natural pressure to pump out the gas-charged water. Scientists say once the natural pumping action of the pipes is triggered, the lakes could continue to purge themselves indefinitely. AMOCiated Prtu PERSIAN GULF DIEHARDS BY JOHN H. CUSHMAN The writer Is with The New York Times. In the troubled waters of the Persian Gulf, a multifarious alliance is resisting the onslaught of an enemy that invaded 16 months ago: the oil slick discharged during the gulf war. At 6 million barrels or more, it was by far the most oil ever spilled into a nearly closed body of water. The resistance: countless marine species struggling for survival, and for the forces of life, the news from the front has been surprisingly good. At least that is the conclusion of many scientists taking part in a 100-day expedition by the Mount Mitchell, a research vessel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that has been operating in the gulf since February and will wind up its work this month. Even as hundreds of miles of Saudi Arabian beaches and coastal shallows suffocate under thick mats of congealing tar, in deeper waters the damage from the spill is hard to detect. "Life in the intertidal zone, where the heaviest oil came, has been eliminated in many cases," said Dr. Robert Clark of the oceanographic agency, the expedition leader aboard the 231-foot ship. "But subtidally,' it looks as one would expect to see in a healthy community." The 24 scientists on the ship have collected hundreds of evidently healthy specimens from coral reefs, fishing grounds, pearl beds and shallows, just off the shores of tiny Saudi islands that carry the scars of the spill. Although in some areas globules of oil bobbed in the currents perhaps fresh from oil rigs on the horizon among the deeper reefs there was no visible sign of oil. Dr. Mark Eakin, a biological oceanographer from NOAA who made numerous dives into the gulf, said he was most surprised by the branching antlers of staghorn coral he had seen: "Nice, healthy Acropora growing in 2 feet of water, 10 or 15 yards from the water's edge, where there was tar in the sand, tarballs on the beach, tar floating in the water healthy, happy coral. Or I should say, apparently healthy and happy." But at the end of the nine-day leg of the trip focusing on coral reefs and fisheries, the scientists found disturbing evidence of what may have been war damage on a reef just off the Kuwaiti port of Shuaiba, near oil fields that were set afire in the war and just south of where most of the spilled oil entered the gulf in January 1991. 1 here were clear signs of cor al mortality: the staghorn coral was bleached, and the domes of brain coral were shedding their living tissues as the swift current scoured them with briny sediment. But there was no visible resi due of oil in the water, and scientists could not be sure wheth er tne deatn was a result of spilled oil the dark skies and cool water associated with the Kuwaiti oil fires last year, sewage or some other factor. This kind of damage makes Dr. Sylvia Earle, until recently NOAA's chief scientist, more cautious than some who marvel at the gulfs resilience. "It is a permanent change," she said of the damage. "It will recover, but it will be different." The biggest problem in inter preting what biologists are discovering is that little was known about the condition of the gulf before the war. "We don't know what is missing," Earle said. what is surviving, however, is enjoying a binge of procreation, from the coral to sea turtles to various species of fish. I he cruise will provide data for marine scientists to analyze for years. Information from underwater photographs, specimens of algae, and heaps of sediment grabbed from the seabed, is recorded in a data base that NOAA and the Re gional Organization for the Pro tection of the Marine Environment have pledged to make available to all. It will be a long time before definitive results of the work are published. But scientists say the lesson the gulf states are learning is that their most famous natural resource, oil, must never be allowed to conquer the renewable richness of the sea. "I hope you will say that even though the environment absorbed this pollution, we still have to take care of the gulf," said Dr. Sami Rahim al-Deen, a professor of marine biology at the King Abdul Aziz University in Saudi Arabia. Nw York Timet Newt Service 1 T

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