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Sylvia Earle

Known as "Her Deepness" by the New Yorker and the New York Times and a "Living Legend" by the Library of Congress, Sylvia Earle is an oceanographer, explorer, author and[…]

Some sea life may think, sense and feel in ways that are beyond our comprehension.

Question: What kinds of sea life arernparticularly intelligent?

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SylviarnEarle:Young thingsrngenerally tend to be curious, especially those that have something you rncanrnreally get your mind around, say, "Those creatures have brains.They have enough of a concentration ofrnnerve cells that they can have a reaction to things.  Theyrn might even anticipate danger and reactrnaccordingly. 

Do they dream?  Do they rnanticipate the future orrnreflect on the past the way humans do? rnWell we’re still trying to figure that out.  I’mrn convinced that other creatures, many other creaturesrnhave more going for them in terms of intelligence and reasoning capacityrn thanrnwe give them credit for.  I’mrnconfident that dolphins and whales have a level of intelligence in some rncasesrnthat we wish we had.  We don’trnthink about sperm whales.  Theyrnhave the biggest brain on the planet. rnThey have closely knit societies. rnThey do things that we don’t know why they do them. rn We see them doing group behavior,rngetting together in a circle that some have designated a margarita rnformation becausernit’s a bit like the glass that a margarita is served in. rn Like a flower with a narrow base to it,rnthey all on some signal get together and dive down all at once.  To do what or why? We’re not smartrnenough yet to figure it out.  We’rernnot sperm whales, but that they do and that they can hold their breath rnfor anrnhour and find food that they engage, big squid, that they travel over rnthousandsrnof miles with no roadmap, go back to the same place time and time again,rnthere are things that I wish we had inherit in our capacity.  Or to be a tuna fish for heaven’s sakesrnthat travel over thousands of miles and come back to the same place. To rnhavernchemoreceptors.  We can smell, thatrn is a kind of chemoreception. Butrnto have a face that has taste buds that extend around up over your wholern facernthe way many fish do or to be able to sense as sharks do, an electricalrnfield.  All creatures have somernkind of an electrical field around them. rnWe do.  Fish do.  Lobstersrn do, but to be able to sensernit, to know that they’re there, maybe we do have some primitive or rnshadow effect that gives us some sense of where we are in relation to rnother things,rnbut sharks really have it.  That’srnhow they find food at night.  Yourncan’t see, but they can sense where they are. 

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The lateral line down many bony fishes that enable rnthem tornsense—we think... we don’t know... wern don’t have a lateral line—but wernspeculate that it enables them to sense movement, so you get these tightrnformations of fish that look as though they’re moving as one fish.  They are so close.  It’s like rnthe Blue Angels, but times arnthousand because they move like this, like streams of silver made of rn10,000rnlittle pieces that move as if they’re just all coordinated on wires, butrnthey’re not.  They’rernindependent.  If only we could feelrnwhat they feel and see what they see. rnTo have the eyes of some of the deep sea fish that are rnexquisitelyrndeveloped to be able to see in low light levels with receptors and rnthings thatrnglow like a cat’s eye or a dog’s eye that sense the tiniest amount ofrnlight.  When we get to 1,000 feetrnin the sea—even in high noon, the broadest daylight and the clearest rnoceanrnwater at 1,000 feet—you can still barely make out shapes and forms, but rnbeyondrnthat it is really dark to our sensors. But to a fish, to these deep sea rnfishrnfor them they can see like a cat can see at night, only much morernsensitive.  It’s because many ofrnthese are tuned to sense bioluminescent light, the firefly kind of lightrn thatrncharacterizes most of the ocean. rnYou get below 1,000 feet it’s dark, but there are these little rnlightsrnthat flash and sparkle and glow.  It’srnlike diving into a galaxy.  Evenrnour eyes pick up the light, but these creatures that have enhanced rnlight-gathering capacity it’s like having night vision goggles, like rnSilence of thernLambs.  There you are.  You rncan see.  Nobody else can see. rnThese fish have the capacity to see what we can’t see, so they rnhaverngifts.

Recorded April 14th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen