Entries in #cetaceans (3)

Monday
Jun052017

The Two Species Of Pilot  Whale

The latest blog from Tenerife looks at the only two known species of Pilot Whale; Short-finned and Long-finned.

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Monday
Aug222016

Do I Need To Be a Marine Biologist?

Thinking about joining the Whale and Dolphin project? Reading about the research may scare you a little, but there's nothing to worry about, you'll have plenty of training! Our Research Assistant Paula will give you the rundown of how it works to join a project with no previous experience.

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Monday
Apr112016

Charismatic Cetaceans: Why We Love Whales And Dolphins - A Blessing And A Curse

Welcome to this four part series about cetaceans! Cetaceans include whales, dolphins and porpoise and their conservation is the main focus of our project here in Tenerife. But why do we humans love cetaceans so much? How do cetaceans interact with their environment? Why have cetaceans been given rights as non-human persons? Why do cetaceans need protecting? Find out everything in our four part Cetacean series!

Whales and dolphins are among a select group called ‘charismatic megafauna’. This means they are big animals with a cute smile - and humans simply love that! Ever wondered why the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) logo is a giant panda? Because it is a cute big fluffy animal with a smile! Okay, it is a little more complicated, but only just.

pixabay | mikakapturWe humans like things to look nice and be able to relate to them. Looks matter! It is not just about swiping left or right on Tinder. It has been scientifically proven we are hard-wired to respond positively to “cute” – big eyes, round heads, short snouts – and it translates directly into dollar bills (or the currency of your choice). Dolphins are the perfect example of “cute”. Their fixed smile give them a friendly and happy appearance and their anatomy is non-threatening; for example their pectoral fins and streamlined body are much like our arms and torso. Compare this to the image of a spider with eight crawling hairy legs and alien-like eyes. With the exception of some little boys’ obsession with creepy crawlies, people prefer dolphins over spiders.

Relatability matters! We long to travel the world barefoot and jump out of flying contraptions… but when it comes down to it, we are creatures of habit, enjoying familiar situations. We like animals to be similar to us and share intelligence, behaviours and social structures. The more similar, the more we identify with them, and the more we feel a moral duty of care to protect them. Dolphins are very intelligent social creatures with a curious nature. We relate to them when listening to their clicks and whistles, watching their playful behaviour such as jumping and playing, blowing bubbles or playing with objects.

flickr | Ania MendrekCetaceans check the boxes: good aesthetics and relatability and voilà, a charismatic megafauna with high economic value to humans. Whales were hunted for their meat, blubber and oil. As science developed it became apparent that these were intelligent social creatures and after the 1970s Save the Whale campaign they were seen as an environmental icon and “gentle giants” who roam the seas peacefully. The whale songs are even used as relaxing meditation music!

flickr | Ezra Freeloveflickr | Rennett StoweWhales and dolphins became part of pop-culture with Flipper in the 1960s and Free Willy in 1993. This new interest in cetaceans sparked a growth of marine parks and aquariums. Belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) with their unique white colour and their range of facial expressions, were first to be held in captivity. Nowadays, bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) are the most common species in marine parks due to their intelligence, trainability, playfulness and friendly appearance as well as the striking killer whales (Orcinus orca). However, in captivity, cetaceans are lacking space and the resemblance to their wild habitat. In the United States the legal requirements for killer whale tank is 15 metres in diameter for two individuals, whereas in the wild an orca can travel up to 160 kilometres a day! As a result, cetaceans can have reduced life expectancies, high levels of stress and even psychosis. Note: If you haven’t yet, you need to watch the critically acclaimed 2013 documentary ‘Blackfish’ which shows the reality behind the tank-life.

It doesn’t take an expert to see that cetaceans are too big and intelligent to be suitable for life in a tank. In some countries dolphins have even received the status of non-human persons, giving them special rights, including it being morally unacceptable to keep them in captivity.

flickr | きうこLuckily, a cetacean’s value is not limited to ticket-sales at a marine park. As charismatic megafauna they easily capture public and media attention, and spark political interest, therefore being more likely to receive protection under the Endangered Species Act and funding for their conservation.

Often, they are an essential part of marine ecosystems as they have a high trophic level (meaning they are on top of the food chain) and can act as an indicator species: Their diet and habitat is supported by a high biodiversity; if this biodiversity declines, so does the quality of their habitat and quantity of their food, and eventually cetaceans. So they can tell us a lot about the state of an ecosystem and are of great ecological value!

Combined with their popularity, it makes them the perfect flagship species to raise awareness about other environmental features!

How? Well, because humans want to protect them, and by doing so they indirectly protect the underlying ecosystems and the small slimy ugly species also found in these ecosystems. No matter how interesting you try to make an image of a piece of seaweed look, it won’t be received as well as a dolphin. In fact, using a flagship species such is what non-governmental organisations (NGOs) use in order to get sponsorship, public awareness or media attention to support the conservation of less charismatic species and therefore biodiversity at large.

flickr | UnsplashSo next time you see a whale or dolphin take a moment to think about why we love them so much. Think about their smiles and about how it is both the curse of being held in captivity and a blessing because of the conservation efforts made!

By Lorain Drennan, Assistant Research Officer

Are you interested in going on a trip to Tenerife to work on the Whale and Dolphin Conservation project? You can also take a look at our other marine conservation projects here.