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Chimpanzees, Dolphins and Extraterrestrials

September 22nd, 2010 by Jessika

(Photo by zooeurope via Flickr)

What do these three things have in common? Well, for the first two, more than you think. For the latter, ET may not even come close to the iconic image from the 1980s Spielberg flick.

Let me elaborate.

Chimpanzees and Dolphins

Maddalena Bearzi and Craig Stanford discuss their findings from years of studying dolphins and chimpanzees, respectively, in “A Bigger, Better Brain.”

Their compares these two animals with each other and their big brained cousin – humans. Of course, humans, chimpanzees and dolphins aren’t the only animals with big brains. But they do seem the most intelligent.

The best part of this piece, besides the interesting behavior of both chimpanzees and dolphins, was the beautiful description of the two animals in their natural habitat at the beginning. One detail of this description particularly invoked an image.

“Each sits sleepily on the branch supporting his or her nest, peeing quietly onto the ground many meters below,” wrote Bearzi and Stanford.

This image reminded me of a man rolling out of bed, wandering sleepily to the bathroom, and then peeing all over the floor. This image made me realize just how similar we are to chimpanzees.

The similarities continued.

Their social skills as well as their ability to learn how to use tools also made the chimpanzees seem more like us. I found it especially interesting that researchers “found at least 39 behaviors that could be attributable to the influence of learned traditions.” While humans have much more learned behaviors, the fact that chimpanzees have so many is surprising, and who know what researchers will find as they do more studies. It’s possible chimpanzees have even more learned behaviors. They just might not be quite as obvious to us.

Researchers have also found learned behaviors in dolphins. The most surprising behavior was that younger dolphins learned to use a sea sponge on the tip of their nose to protect them and to get prey.

Another interesting trait that many people would think is uniquely human is the concept of the individual. I found it fascinating that both dolphins and chimpanzees recognize themselves as individuals. This is incredible. It really made me wonder how much we don’t know about these animals. Are they even more like us? Will research show us this?

While Bearzi and Stanford obviously had an agenda in writing this piece, their agenda didn’t become abundantly clear until the last page. Chimpanzees and dolphins are threatened by humans, and if we don’t do something soon to protect and conserve them, they may not be around much longer.

How can we let them go extinct? Would they let us go extinct if they were in the same position?

We cannot idly sit by as we drive them to endangered levels. We must do something. I just hope we do it before its too late.

ET

We have spent millions (if not billions) of dollars looking for life off Earth. We’ve looked on the moon. Mars. Asteroids. Yet, we still haven’t found anything. Why?

Is it because there really isn’t other life in the universe? Have just not found it?

KC Cole in “Seeking Life as We know It” has a different take on this. Perhaps we haven’t found life on Mars or Europa or Saturn because we are looking for life in terms of what we know.

On Earth, water is the basis of life. So, we have been looking for water on other planets and extraterrestrial matter. But what if other elements beside hydrogen and oxygen served as life’s building blocks? Maybe ammonia or silicone could sustain life.

This concept is fascinating yet very sad at the same time. It’s fascinating because there really is so much out there we don’t know. But it’s sad, because we may be so invested in what we do know that we will miss the chance to learn about what we don’t know.

Besides addressing the fundamental and intriguing question of what is life, Cole’s piece also employs two other methods to keep readers interested. She knows exactly where to use a quote, finding the most colorful quote to illustrate what she is talking about.

For example, Cole ends the piece with this quote that is both powerful and makes the reader think: “We still don’t understand how life works,” said UCLA chemist Ken Houk. “It’s utterly miraculous. Even though it’s sitting there and staring us in the face, we don’t understand it.”

Another method used to keep the reader engaged is colorful descriptions that make difficult concepts easy to understand. On of the best examples of this came early on in the piece. Cole describes water molecules sticking together only briefly as “whirling an ever-changing cast of partners around in a molecular square dance.”

This description did it’s job. I immediately pictured molecules do-si-doing. Though it did leave me with the question of who is the caller?

So, taking all of this into account – the quotes, the descriptions, the questions – this piece really made me think. Will we ever find life on Mars? If we do, what will it look like?

I have no idea. But I hope I get to find out.

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