May 17, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

News from the Living Waters

Animal heroes of the Illustra film “Living Waters” are still making headlines.

Fans of Illustra Media’s Living Waters, third installment in its Design of Life series, will probably be interested in seeing how the animal stars are doing, and what scientists are finding out about them. See the trailer for the film here, along with ordering information.


The film didn’t mention dolphins’ skill at migration, as it did for sea turtles and salmon, but dolphin migration was the focus of a recent study at University of Georgia. Bottlenose dolphins migrate along the southeast Atlantic coast. Science Daily says, “While this species of dolphin is widely studied, surprisingly little is known about what influences the timing of these migrations.” After visually monitoring 1,000 individual dolphins, the researchers have concluded that water temperature is the primary environmental cue they use to know it’s time to move on. The results are published in Animal Migration.

An even more interesting dolphin study was mentioned by New Scientist: dolphins have a language that helps them solve problems together. Clever experiments by researchers in Florida used a canister device that required two dolphins to cooperate to get the reward inside. Recordings showed an increase in chatter when they worked together.

Amazing FactsUnlike most dolphin vocalisations, the so-called “burst pulses” the dolphins made are audible to humans as a squawking sound. We already knew that dolphins use burst pulses during social interaction and echolocation. But according to Leigh Torres, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University, these new findings suggest that burst pulses may have another sophisticated purpose.

“This study clearly shows that dolphins use vocal communication to jointly solve problems”, says Torres. “The results point toward the possibility of a dolphin language that enables team problem solving.

Sea Turtles

More information has come out regarding the magnetic sense of sea turtles and other migrating animals. Evolution News & Views reported on findings that it may not be due so much to particles of magnetite, but to special proteins called cryptochromes. These proteins apparently respond to magnetic fields using principles of quantum mechanics. It’s been “maddeningly difficult” to figure out this incredibly precise sense, so undoubtedly cryptochromes are not the complete answer.

Other news is not so good. Conservation laws are not adequately protecting these endangered animals, Science Daily says. “An illegal trade in marine turtles is continuing despite legislation and conservation awareness campaigns,” scientists at the University of Exeter found. They recommend substantial changes to law and policy. National Geographic explains why life is so difficult for sea turtles (the ones that make the mad dash from the beach to the water, that is). Besides fishing nets and illegal poaching, “Ocean trash and an epidemic virus are wreaking havoc on the marine reptiles, which have been beating the odds for millennia.” Some species are doing better than others.


Olfaction (the sense of smell) was a prime focus of Illustra’s feature about salmon. Evolution News & Views reports on new findings about how the olfactory sensory neurons, with their unique receptors, are set up during development. In another piece, Evolution News & Views reported about how a molecular machine called carbonic anhydrase prepares their fish’s resources for their long journey home. A third article at Evolution News & Views answers a kid’s question: why do fish bob their heads when they swim? There’s a design to it. Bobbing optimizes three things at once: oxygen intake, propulsion, and their lateral line sense.

Illustra’s second film Flight: The Genius of Birds included a section about how geolocators helped figure out the Arctic tern’s migration path. Marine biologists are getting into this technique for salmon, Science Daily reveals. Juvenile salmon, known as smolts, were implanted with electronic tags so that scientists at the University of British Columbia could follow them.

More than 2,000 salmon were tracked over four years and researchers found that survival was poor in the clear and slow-moving Chilko River, where predators were feeding intensely on the smolts. Once in the murky and fast-flowing Fraser River, the salmon travelled day and night, covering up to 220 km per day, and experienced nearly 100 per cent survival. The researchers believe that in these waters, predators have difficulty finding and getting to the fish.

Many of the fish, naturally, never make it to sea, but into the mouths of bears and birds. Results of another study showed that many of them still make it through the most dangerous waters by swamping their predators with a “safety in numbers” strategy.

Humpback Whales

Speaking of swamping predators, Evolution News & Views chided evolutionist Jerry Coyne for his weak video promoting whale evolution by listing numerous links on the problems with Darwinian explanations for whales. Viewers of Living Waters remember the powerful case Richard Sternberg makes against gradual adaptation of a land animal to a seagoing creature.

Science Daily, meanwhile, reported about a helicopter survey of humpbacks and fin whales along the Antarctic coast to see how they dine on krill (tiny marine crustaceans), their favorite food. They don’t seem particular about the species of krill. If you’d like to watch a dramatic video of a humpback breaching the surface to get a mouthful of food, National Geographic has it. They knew it was coming because it used the “bubblenet technique” to concentrate the krill for best return on investment. “Like a dramatic scene from a Hollywood thriller, a humpback whale suddenly emerged from the water just feet from boats, docks, and onlookers in southeastern Alaska, its giant mouth gaping,” the caption teases.

You’ll enjoy this entry far more if you have watched the film. Order it today. If you’ve seen it, share it with others. And if you live near southern California, Captain Dave Anderson (featured in the film) has been having great luck viewing dolphins, humpback whales, fin whales, gray whales, Minke whales and even blue whales from his three tour boats. On recent trips they have seen thousands of dolphins! Sign up for Capt. Dave’s Whale and Dolphin Safari for an adventure like no other: viewing the largest animals that ever lived up close in the marine mammal version of the Serengeti.

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