Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Toroidal Bubbles and Sapience

I first saw a video of cetaceans making toroidal bubbles on Facebook, and then also found this clip elsewhere.

Dolphins and other cetaceans can blow toroidal bubbles underwater. The video shows the dolphins in particular manipulating the bubbles quite skillfully to change their size and direction. The dolphins display a similar playful interaction with the bubbles that they do with toys such as plastic hoops provided by humans.

I propose that this constitutes two qualities which count toward the verification of sapience:

* making artifacts

* a sense of aesthetics demonstrated by creating or doing things solely for pleasure, without practical use

The dolphins have unquestionably constructed the bubbles. These are not tools which can be used to produce a material benefit. They are toys, or perhaps performance art given that some dolphins seem to enjoy hamming around for an audience. It is particularly interesting that dolphins have made something from scratch rather than picked up an object from the environment to play with.

It does not matter than the material is not as solid as most materials preferred by human crafters, but that does give us a hint to pay more attention to ephemeral technology. Cetaceans don't have hands but they do seem quite adept at manipulating bubbles. Humpback whales not only coordinate their fishing efforts, but construct fishnets out of bubbles. This is the same material used to meet a survival need, hunting for food. Therefore, cetaceans use bubble technology for both recreational and practical purposes. I believe that humans have overlooked the significance of this because of a bias toward durable artifacts. They see the bubbles, but not the technology.

Some thoughts for anyone in a position to observe cetaceans:

* Does the recreational use of bubbles constitute an actual game rather than freestyle play? That is, do dolphins create the bubbles with some specific goal(s) in mind? From the brief sampling it seemed as if the dolphins had specific ideas about what they wanted to do with the bubbles: catch them, change their size, swim through them, etc. It would be interesting to amass a sizable collection of dolphin/bubble events and then count to see if certain behaviors appear more often, if the dolphins seem to try and fail to do particular things, and if they improve at self-chosen goals over time. Does a novice bubble maker clumsily pop them, but keep trying until s/he learns how to clip off a smaller toroid? Does it take practice to learn how to blow a bubble and then swim through it? Do they challenge themselves with more difficult tricks after mastering the simpler ones? These would parallel some things that humans do in turning a simple toy into a more structured game.

* What else do cetaceans do with bubbles? Are there more examples of bubble technology used for recreational or practical purposes? What is the penetration of bubble technology through each species or cetaceans as a larger group? What are some differences and similarities between this and other technologies which rely on durable materials?

* Some cetaceans have also been observed using solid tools. For example, dolphins may pick up a sponge to protect their snout from sharp objects while probing the ocean floor for food. Likewise, captive dolphins may be provided with tools or toys, and wild ones may pick up human artifacts. Is there a correlation between the use of solid objects and the use of bubble technology? Does a species or individual prefer one at the expense of the other? Or does a general interest in manipulating objects carry over so that some use both types of technology with enthusiasm?

Tags: discussion, networking, science, video, wildlife

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