Will a beluga whale solve problems to get a reward?
In 1970, as I was studying for my doctorate degree in bioengineering, I became fascinated with cetaceans, an order of mammals that includes whales and dolphins. My doctoral research had to do with human blood analysis and autoimmune diseases and bore no relevance whatsoever to marine mammals. I was, however, motivated by cetaceans, and it was not long before I started studying them and performing experiments in my spare time. One of the most scientifically captivating aspects about whales is their large brains, which are typically larger than human brains and can be more convoluted, unlike many other large non-cetacean brains. The large convoluted brains suggest very high intelligence. During this time, I visited the New York Aquarium frequently to observe the whales and dolphins in captivity.
I was given permission at the New York Aquarium to study the behavior of beluga whales, also known as white whales and scientifically as Delphinapterous leucas. Regarding cetaceans, in general, I am not condoning capturing these magnificent animals, except possibly to learn what is best for them. There are pros and cons to captivity. Captivity has perhaps led to greater appreciation for these marvelous mammals and possibly a lower probability of extinction due to human hunting. On the other hand, we have learned that cetaceans in captivity need an environment that we currently cannot as yet provide, a vast environment that enables the extended families, that is: the pods, to flourish. There are also guidelines that should be followed, such as not taking a baby away from its mother. Those who have seen the CNN presentation on television titled Blackfish, a documentary on problems with killer whales in captivity, have perhaps become aware that we must revisit and rethink the captivity issue. I am not arguing for or against captivity, but only to say that if we wish to study the intelligence of a cetacean in captivity, it is essential to provide an environment as close as possible to the natural environment as we can achieve.
The results of my experiments, as will be described, were never published, nor were the videos ever shown. These videos were captured on super-8 photographic motion picture film, and this was prior to the wide-scale introduction of videotape and video cameras. After decades of neglect, I decided to describe my research and show the videos. To do this, it was necessary to convert the super-8 film images to digital images, and although the resulting videos are somewhat grainy, most of these super-8 film images came out reasonably well. The resulting videos illustrate the research that was performed in the early 1970’s to study and understand whale intelligence, in part by studying how the beluga whale solves problems. Hopefully others will be inspired to pursue similar research.
Of course, you can watch the videos, but to really understand what is going on in the videos and especially to learn about the “AHA” experiment that this was all leading to, check out my white paper BelugaWhaleIntelligenceAndProblemSolving-WhitePaper.