A beluga whale spotted in Norway wearing a Russian harness sparked heightened concern over Russian special ops, The Washington Post reported. The creature’s harness read “Equipment of St. Petersburg,” raising concerns that it may be part of a top secret Russian intelligence program. Are marine mammals smart enough to spy on us?
According to the The Washington Post article, researchers have said that the model of harness recovered from the whale could hold any number of weapons or cameras, though Russia has denied the existence of any kind of marine mammal intelligence program for many years. As silly as it may sound, aquatic life has been used for military intelligence purposes for years—since the 1950s in the United States alone. Just how smart are marine mammals, though, and which other purposes have they served for humanity?
Whale Spys – Behavioral Intelligence in Marine Mammals
“Based on observation, it’s safe to say cognitive function in certain marine mammal species appears to be high,” said Dr. Sean K. Todd, who holds the Steven K. Katona Chair in Marine Sciences at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. “Some are capable of tool use.” Dr. Todd points to sea otters, which often pick up rocks and use them to break open a type of sea mollusk called a bivalve. Another example of marine life using tools comes from bottlenose dolphins. “A population of bottlenose dolphins in Australian waters have developed the habit of holding a sponge over the tip of their rostrum to protect their sensitive skin when rooting around in the sea floor’s coralline sand and looking for food.” This behavior is markedly advanced for animal life, but the most surprising sign of intelligence comes from somewhere else entirely.
According to Dr. Todd, bottlenose dolphins also seem to be able to recognize their own image in a mirror, as were several orcas and false killer whales that were with the dolphins during the experiment. “This is a very, very rare ability indeed, seen only in humans, magpies, macaques, chimpanzees, orangutans, and Asian elephants,” Dr. Todd said. “Being able to recognize one’s own image is a first step towards the concept of self, something we all, as humans, take for granted but is apparently largely absent in the animal world.”
Intelligent Marine Mammals – Strand Feeding
Marine life also shows intelligence through strand feeding. “This is when an orca will deliberately beach itself and snag an unsuspecting sea lion pup and then roll and wiggle back into the surf and the safety of deep water,” Dr. Todd said. Although scientists remain unsure how this behavior initially developed, it does seem to be passed down from mother to child.
In fact, in one example Dr. Todd gave, a juvenile orca beached itself and accidentally became stranded, unable to return to the water. When this happened, its mother followed suit, intentionally causing a displacement wave in the water so that the juvenile could coast along back to the deep. “That’s a remarkable demonstration of a whale’s ability to process information, real-time, and react to it in an innovative way,” he said.
Outfitting belugas with cameras or even weapons may sound far-fetched, but marine mammals are very intelligent creatures. Few species develop such elaborate feeding habits, including using tools. Even fewer are capable of recognizing their own images in mirrors. Self-awareness and dynamic self-preservation behaviors may only be the tip of the iceberg in recognizing the potential for higher levels of intelligence in sea life.
Dr. Sean K. Todd contributed to this article. Dr. Todd holds the Steven K. Katona Chair in Marine Sciences at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. He received an undergraduate degree in Marine Biology and Oceanography from Bangor University in the United Kingdom and his master’s and doctoral degrees in Biopsychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.