In this episode, Lauren talks about dolphin brains, drone research, and robo dolphins with comparative biologist Dr. Jason Bruck. Jason studies cognition in bottlenose dolphins and hopes that his research will help scientists answer some of the many questions we still have about whales, porpoises and dolphins.
Cetaceans are difficult to study, and dolphin researcher Dr. Jason Bruck can attest to that. He studies cognition in bottlenose dolphins and is part of a team that develops innovative research tools that he hopes will help conserve whales, porpoises and dolphins around the world. In this interview, he reveals what got him into studying marine mammals, and talks about the latest research he is involved with.
References & Further Reading
Comprehensive article covering Jason’s drone project – Link
Comparative Biology definition – Link
Jason Bruck’s paper on ground squirrels – Bruck, J.N. and Mateo, J.M. 2010. How habitat features shape ground squirrel (Urocitellus beldingi) navigation. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 124(2): 176-186.
Article that covers Jason’s cognition research (signature whistles) – Link
YouTube video of visual range of bottlenose dolphins, dolphin quest Bermuda – Link
Impact of naval sonar on cetaceans – Link
Study on anthropogenic noise and marine mammals – Link
Size of blue whales – Link
Average length is 90-100 feet or *average loaded school bus weighs 17 tons. Total body weight average for a blue whale is 330,000 lbs, so 1 blue whale could weight the same as 9.7 average loaded school buses. The largest blue whales could possibly eat 6 tons of krill per day (thats more than the weight of an ambulance) per day! Each krill weighs about 0.07 ounces, so it would take about 250 krill to weigh 1 pound or about 505 krill in 1 kg.
Height of a blue whale blow – Link
Height of a harbour porpoise blow – rough estimate, private communication with Dr. Anna Hall
Host & Executive Producer: Lauren Hartling
Guest: Dr. Jason Bruck
Associate Producer: Derek Jang
Audio Engineering & Editing: Marcus Wernicke
Theme Song: Black Rhomb - River of Time (under license)
Additional Music: RimsyMusic - Watching the Stars (under license)
Dolphin echolocation and communication sounds under license from Soundboard.com
Underwater ambient noise by DCSFX (Public Domain), via freesound.org
Hydrophone recording of a small boat passing by klankbeeld (CC by attribution license), via freesound.org
Hydrophone recording of a ship's propeller by blaukreuz (CC 0 license), via freesound.org
Recording of classroom activity by abcopen (CC non-commercial license), via freesound.org
Other effects under license from soundsnap, Ojoo Limited
Introduction Lauren Hartling: Hello and welcome to our second episode of not a dolphin. Today you’re going to have a chance to hear an interview I did with dr Jason Bruck. He is a scientist focused on cognition, communication, and ecology in whales and other vertebrates. He was kind enough to take some time to chat with me through distance, and we got talking about brains, drones, and even robo dolphins. Now, that might be a lot more dolphin talk than you would expect from a podcast focused on porpoises. But I promise you’re going to want to hear this,…
Lauren Hartling: Hello and welcome to our second episode of not a dolphin. Today you’re going to have a chance to hear an interview I did with dr Jason Bruck. He is a scientist focused on cognition, communication, and ecology in whales and other vertebrates. He was kind enough to take some time to chat with me through distance, and we got talking about brains, drones, and even robo dolphins. Now, that might be a lot more dolphin talk than you would expect from a podcast focused on porpoises. But I promise you’re going to want to hear this, so I hope you are as excited about this episode as I am. Grab a seat, get comfortable, and let’s dive in together.
Jason Bruck: Hello, happy to be here.
Jason Bruck ─ What got him into his line of work?
Lauren Hartling: So Jason, kind of curious about what got you interested in your line of work. What made you decide, yes, this is what I’m doing with my life.
Jason Bruck: I was a three year old child who wasn’t too keen on the idea of having to go get a job in the world. I was pretty comfortable, um, where things were at the time .
My father is a veterinarian. He’s still in practice. Uh, I think he’s going on 40 to 50 years in practice kind of deal. Yeah we had about 73 animals in our property and our nine acre property, uh, Because my father was also the wildlife rehabilitator for Onondaga County.
So, I mean, I grew up with, you know, all kinds of animals. We had. Uh, Raptors, uh, you know, we had one, a red tail Hawk named Gertrude who, who, uh, uh, a Hunter had actually shot off half of her wing. And so she was deemed non releasable. And so she stayed with us and my father would go to schools and, and sh and show her to the students and explain kind of some of the concerns about hunting protected animals, which she was.
Um, so I grew up with that. And, uh, so my parents gave me some options about some of the, some of the things that could be in life. And then they started listing off a bunch of different animals and they got to whales and dolphins. And I said, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to be a whale and dolphin doctor. Why? Because those are because those are bigger and hence bigger is better.
Uh, and it was in truth, it was the time. It was the only group of animals.
I didn’t really have a lot of exposure to growing up. I mean their closest living relatives is a hippo. You know, they come from the , even-toed ungulates we know where these animals are and evolution, but they are so strange. And they are, I mean. 113 feet.
Lauren Hartling: Can you guess what animal he’s talking about? If you guessed blue whale, you win. In meters, you’re looking at about 30 meters in length on average for a full grown blue whale. If you’re trying to picture that in a visual way, if you take about two average school buses, those big ones and a small school bus and you park them end to end, that would be about the length of a full grown blue whale, give or take.
Dolphin Signature Whistles and Memory
Jason Bruck: Um, I just never grew out of it. Um, I never, I never stopped being fascinated with these animals. And then, um, my PhD work was on their cognition. Their ability to remember each other. Uh, and remember each other’s signature whistles. Dolphins, each uh, have individualized signature whistles, which work like names for them.
Lauren Hartling: Oh, that’s so cool.
Jason Bruck: I would play back their signature whistles from one animal to another at different facilities. And I was basically like dolphin, uh, AT&T telephone company. And, um. Was was assessing whether they can remember those signature whistles or not, and figuring out that they had the longest memory ever seen outside of a human being, ever.
Lauren Hartling: And which kind of dolphins were these?
Jason Bruck: These are bottlenose.
Lauren Hartling: And so what, what timeframe are you looking at? Like how long were they remembering signature whistles?
Jason Bruck: Over 20 years.
Lauren Hartling: Over 20 years.
I cannot remember someone’s name I met last week. That’s amazing.
Jason Bruck: They have 20 years social memory at least.
Lauren Hartling: Did they have to interact with this dolphin a whole bunch in order for them to remember better? Like is it a casual passing or is this like a friend that I’ve known for a very long time?
Jason Bruck: That’s a very good question. The answers casual passing.
When we modeled this out, the length of exposure to the other animal does not predict how long they can remember each other’s whistle.
They have unbelievable memory with such short exposure.
Lauren Hartling: Wow. So using that in the ocean, I mean, dolphins are social animals that would obviously have a benefit for them in the ocean. If they come across Hank who they met 15 years ago, maybe Hank knows where the best halibut fishing is.
Jason Bruck: That’s true. And also whether or not Hank kicked their butt five years ago or 10 years ago or 15 years ago, or whether this female was sexually receptive to this male 15 years ago or 10 years ago, or, yeah. So those, there are lots of good reasons why a bottlenose dolphin wants to remember other bottlenose dolphins that it may not have seen in a while because they have a vision fusion social system, characterized by these loose affiliations.
Think about your Facebook wall. You know, I know this person who, this person knows this person, who knows this person. It’s all networked. We’re all six degrees of separation from each other. Uh, dolphins are the same way. They have that same type of social system.
So, uh, but they don’t have a Facebook wall to keep track of everything who they know in this world and who they don’t. So they have to keep track of it in their own heads. And my argument in that paper was that perhaps this explains the origin of some of our more advanced cognitive traits because, uh, right now the literature favors this idea that it’s called Machiavellian intelligence. The idea that you evolve to get smart based on lying, cheating, stealing, deceiving, and, and social gamesmanship. Um, but you know, dolphins aren’t known for that so much. Neither are elephants. And so the idea I postulated was that maybe it’s just trying to keep track of everybody in a complex, fluid social system that actually, uh, explains the evolution.
Lauren Hartling: Did you find was there a limit to how many individuals they could remember or, or maybe how many individuals did you use in this study?
Jason Bruck: This is the largest study ever done with animals under human care, with the most number of subjects at the time, I think we had 53 subjects as part of this dissertation. It was a collective dissertation.
Lauren Hartling: Thinking about animals, remembering things got me thinking about brains and pictures of brains I had seen and how some brains have more folds than others. And I got really curious. So I asked Jason a bit more about brains.
Jason Bruck: So the brain in the dolphin, the one thing, if you ever look at a comparison between a dolphin’s brain a porpoise’s brain, uh, mysticete’s brain compared to a human’s brain one of the things that you tend to see most of the toothed whales is, uh, an overexpression of the temporal lobe that is very easily explained by the use of echolocation.
So the more you have to see with sound, the more developed that temporal lobe is going to be. Now, truth is though, the more folds you have in that brain tissue, the more surface area you can have of brain in a smaller space
Lauren Hartling: So you’re more gray matter in there.
Jason Bruck: Yeah. You’re squishing more, more brain matter into that smaller space.
Studying Ground Squirrels
Lauren Hartling: I also wanted to know when he first started doing research, what species did he focus on
Jason Bruck: So my master’s degree was on ground squirrel, spatial learning.
Uh, yeah. And so I, you know, I, I’ve worked with other animals on my way back and forth to Marine mammals.
Lauren Hartling: Ground Squirrels are the fuzzy land dolphins of the world.
Jason Bruck: Sure, sure. Whatever they have. They do have their own complex societies and situations, and, and I was studying their spatial navigation.
So you actually set up these very high stools with these huge kind of stilts at the end.
Basically hunters would use them to kind of, you know, get up view above the deer, but we would use them to get a view above the ground squirrels. And you’d follow a ground squirrel for 30 minutes, writing down all of its behaviors. You know, if it saw, if it did it, hear the alarm call, did it make an alarm call?
Lauren Hartling: So you’re kind of perching like Gertrude above them?
Jason Bruck: You’re right you’re perched above them and, and uh, it exactly like a hawk staring down at your prey, except when your animal does actually get eaten by a Hawk or something. Like we’ve had ground squirrels getting by seagulls.
Uh, yeah, I know.
Lauren Hartling: I’m trying to picture that
Jason Bruck: Uh, yeah. The younger, the younger ground squirrels would get eaten by a seagull and you’d just sit there and you’d just watch them just kinda go in, and pick them up and then swallow them whole.
Lauren Hartling: My study subject!
Jason Bruck: Yeah.
But then you have to find a new study subject because your subject subject, got eaten there was more than one occasion I did. write Got eaten, uh, on the data sheet and had to go find another subject.
Lauren Hartling: Oh no. Oh, these are the things that people don’t realize about studying animals. My subject got eaten.
Jason Bruck: Yes. Yeah. Subjects in the wild, man, it’s, they don’t always make it.
Lauren Hartling: Yeah. Well, and I’m picturing now too, I worked as an interpreter, I often got asked, you know, what does this animal eat? And you would kind of give ’em a basic rundown, a generic rundown of what they eat. And then I would say like, but honestly, anything can eat anything.
I mean, I’ve seen, I have, I’ve seen pictures of squirrels killing and eating snakes or an octopus eating a seagull. Like it’s so kind of crazy when you kind of explained to people like you take the opportunities where they are given. And yeah, ground squirrel in a seagull. That’s a new one for me.
Jason Bruck: I was watching up on the height I was watching, I was up on the, on the stilts, and I was looking out there and I look, I see this little nest of baby, uh, ground squirrels and aw that’s cute. They’re eating strawberries. And I’m like, wait a second, I look closer. I break out the binoculars.
I look right. Those aren’t strawberries. Those are baby mice.
They had raided a mouse nest and were eating the babies out of the mouse nest. So the wild and this is what I tell people, the wild is not a hippy commune. It is not. It is kill or be killed. It is survival of the fittest. It is everything Darwin said it was.
Comparative Biology & Studying Marine Mammals
And I couldn’t wait to get back to Marine mammals. I love the ground squirrels dearly. I do. And they’re cute and wonderful, and, and they only bite, you know, all the time.
So. Every time I’m not working with Marine mammals, I do have to think about, well, how much longer till I’m working back with Marine mammals. That’s part it. Um, and it’s just, it’s just what gets you going, right? It’s not like any, you do have to work in other texa if you are a comparative biologist like I am. Um, because you, you’re, you’re really, you’re, the question has to drive what you’re doing, not the study subject. You can’t say, you know what? I want to study maze learning in dolphins just because I liked dolphins when maybe maze learning in a mouse is a more sensible way to get to the question you’re trying to ask.
Lauren Hartling: So comparative biology is when biologists come up with a hypothesis or prediction, based on existing information of other species or other animals or life systems, and they can test their hypothesis through experiments, either in a lab or in the field.
Jason Bruck: You have to pick the right species for the question you’re interested in. And so there are times where I’m interested in a question, and Marine mammals are not the best system for that question, so I don’t study it in Marine mammals.
There are often times where I will pick questions where I know the question is best studied in a Marine mammal so I can make sure that I’m studying it in a marine mammal.
And then the other issue is when it comes down to conservation. If you are trying to conserve Marine mammals, you should study what you’re studying in a Marine mammal.
Using Drones to Study Dolphins in the Wild
Lauren Hartling: Now that Jason has a PhD in Marine mammal communication and cognition as well as mammalian spatial navigation and animal behavior. I was really curious to know more about what his focus was for research.
Jason Bruck: So currently, I am a faculty member in the department of integrated biology at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, which is a weird place to say that you’re a marine mammologist from, I know, but, uh, Oklahoma is pretty good at a few things. We’re very good with animals and we’re very good with drones.
So we do, um, in addition to some of the work I’ve done in the past, which I could tell you about if you’re interested in, uh, S some of the work we do now is on a passive, uh, hormone, uh, assessment in wild cetaceans using drones. So the idea is to fly drones around and collect. Uh, hormone samples from the animals’ blow, uh, so that we can later analyze that sample to determine things like stress levels through cortisol, or looking at things like pregnazone to determine kind of reproductive status.
Lauren Hartling: What exactly is a whales blow? It’s the term that researchers use for the exhaling from citations. You’ve seen this in videos of whales. You’ve might’ve heard it if you’ve been lucky enough to be near the ocean when whales go by, it’s when they exhale out of their blow hole on the top of their head.
Now. Often people think that that’s mostly water, but it happens to contain water because the blowhole is kind of a divot in the top of the whale’s head. So when they exhale, kind of like when you’re underwater, you come up to take a breath and you breathe out, water comes off your face as well as spittin probably mucus, but what researchers have discovered in the last several years is that in the blow, in that exhale from a whale, it’s coming from their lungs. It’s full of mucus, it’s full of DNA, it’s full of hormones and bacteria. And researchers can collect that snot with a drone, wipe it off with little a swabs, and they can learn so much about an animal.
And the animal pretty much has no idea that they were just there. It’s crazy cool science.
Jason Bruck: And this is a group of people I work with who basically fly drones into tornadoes. They’re pretty skilled in their, their drone development.
Lauren Hartling: They can fly pretty much anywhere.
Jason Bruck: Yeah. And so, uh, Oklahoma is actually a pretty good place if you really want to sit there and develop a new drone platform, specifically dedicated to marine mammals, …which is our goal.
Lauren Hartling: I think that’s so fascinating. So you’re kind of bringing the marine mammal experience and knowledge, and then you have the, the drone flyers have basically flown through pretty much anything.
Jason Bruck: And the drone builders. Yeah. They’re the developers, too. So they know how to build these things. And I know kind of how to put them in front of marine mammals to ask the questions they need to ask.
So I have a masters student right now who’s doing a study of the visual field of the bottlenose dolphins, so we can see what they can see around their head.
So we know if there’s any blind spots, we might be able to sneak either a drone or something hanging off of a drone or some other technique so that we can collect the hormone samples, taking their visual field into account. Uh, we have another study we’re doing where we’re looking at their acoustic, uh, capabilities, so their ability to determine, you know, different drone sounds and what is aversive and what is not, like, okay, what can you hear and what can’t you hear?
Lauren Hartling: Right? And have you found a big change in, in over your years of doing this, have you found maybe the first time you were flying drones, you’re like, whoa, that was too close. And now like you’re able to find a range that’s not as impactful on them.
Jason Bruck: Well, this is all very brand new. So in some cases, we only really have a sense of what you can and can’t get away with because of what others have tried. And so what we’ve gotten from other researchers is that when they would attempt to do this, most of the time, they would fail to collect the hormones that we would like to collect. And so the goal for us is to take what they have done, learn from that, and develop this new platform in response to it.
Robo Dolphin to the Rescue
And part of that has actually involved us building a robo dolphin where it actually mimics, it mimics the lung function of the dolphins. So we’ve taken data with our partners at Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, uh, looking at, okay, what is the exact plume dynamics of the dolphin’s breath?
How high it goes, how much mucus is at each level? Um, all of this stuff so we can know exactly how close to the marine mammal we have to get to collect the sample.
Lauren Hartling: So if you’re wondering how high can a blow go, in the case of a blue whale, their exhale can reach the height of about nine meters or more. That’s about 30 feet in height. You can compare that to a smaller cetacean like a harbor porpoise. Their blow is a lot smaller at about half a meter, which is about a foot and a half.
Jason Bruck: And now that we have those data, a student who’s getting his master’s degree actually built this, uh, artificial dolphin lung that simulates the breath.
And I have dolphins that have passed away. We have preserved them over time and we did some scans on those high resolution CT scans. We were actually able to scan the nasal passage of the dolphin and then 3D print that, uh, to mimic the exact, uh, kind of nasal anatomy of the dolphin and plug that into the end of it. So we have the dolphin lung, and you’d be amazed at how big this is.
To simulate what it is to make a dolphin’s lung, we have built this just huge, machine just to get the same exact breath that this much smaller dolphin can produce. And it’s just to give you a sense of the amazing physiology of these animals.
It is very much more efficient per unit of body size at producing that much of a, what we call a flow rate, or just the amount of mucus it spits up into the air at per 0.3 seconds, which is exactly how long it takes for them to kind of exhale their breath.
Lauren Hartling: That’s a very short period of time then to make sure you can be there.
Jason Bruck: Sometimes you, you, you have the dolphin in front of you, you can collect data, but sometimes you want to be able to validate that with a known quantity. And, uh, our robo dolphin allows people to do that.
So it’s been great to kind of just be able to feed back in. And again, we could not have done this without the help of the zoos and aquariums that have worked with us, like Dolphin Quest. Um, and some of the other facilities who’ve, who’ve been real partners in helping us develop these conservation research programs .
Lauren Hartling: Right. So you, by working with these facilities that have dolphins in human care, you can get a lot more close to these animals. You can actually answer questions that you really couldn’t do actually in the field.
Jason Bruck: That’s right. And I think that’s the other thing that, and some people don’t realize that they think, Oh, well, these animals are just here for entertainment. Reality is, is that there are no, especially the United States, there are no designated research facilities that house marine mammals. Funding is just too inconsistent in the grant world to support marine mammals who eat a lot of fish a day.
Lauren Hartling: For researchers to work hands on with animals like dolphins that live at accredited zoos and aquariums. It’s a really invaluable part of their study and can often save them hours, if not months and years of time and lots of money. For example, one of the dolphins at the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, Canada was helping researchers from New Zealand try to problem solve why their suction cup tag kept falling off the dolphins in the ocean.
The dolphin at the aquarium was able to wear the tag on her body and the researchers could figure out what part of the body should they be aiming the section cup for to maximize how long it stayed on the body while the dolphin did its normal things like swimming and jumping and sitting still. So it’s really cool that researchers can work with animals that are comfortable around people answer questions that they couldn’t answer in the ocean, and then take that information out to sea and put it to practical use.
It’s a really great way to make research happen and it’s a really good way to fine tune what you’re about to do out in the ocean.
Anthropogenic (Man-Made) Noise
So how many different projects have you worked on that do correlate to conservation protection in the ocean?
Jason Bruck: My PhD student is working on a project now where she’s looking at the effects of anthropogenic noise, which is a fancy way of saying human made sounds on marine mammals. She’s looking at it from the cognitive point of view.
So if you could imagine a bunch of kids in a, in a classroom, and rather than you know, just looking at the damage of sounds in that room to their hearing, you’re just looking at, well, what is the effect of all of this sound on the learning environment because these are animals that have to learn a lot of things in life in order to develop into a successful adult marine mammal.
Lauren Hartling: They’re kind of like humans and that they have that parental input initially.
Jason Bruck: That’s right. That’s right. And they’ve got all that in there. And then here’s the problem. We’re just almost 24/7 noise. Going at these poor, poor young dolphins and porpoises and, and, and, and big whales.
So, well, what we’re asking the dolphins to do is okay, when we play some of these sounds and we’ll include things like Navy sonar, uh, jet-skis, uh, uh, cruise ships, things like that. And we play these sounds with the dolphins and we say, okay, okay, which of these do you get used to?
Which of these do you, what we call habituate to Okay. And then which of these sounds do you become more reactive to over time?
The other way this can go with sensitize, we call it, where you respond more and more to this sound every time you hear it. And it looks like the pattern so far is that some noises the dolphins do habituate to and so we know that those things may not affect learning as much as things like other noises where we see some sensitization effects.
We do have, uh, at least some sense of which of those sounds have habituation effects. And which of those sounds has sensitization effects, and which of those sounds have neither, meaning they don’t get more reactive, but they sure don’t get used to it either.
Um, if we do start to see that there was yes, a quantifiable change in the amount of noise and that it had a positive effect on the animals.
And then the next question is going to be, how do you get policymakers to, uh, make changes in their behavior relative to that? And I think that’s, that’s really going to be the push. Um, cause we’re even seeing it now where it’s. We’re seeing a lot of areas where wildlife is starting to make some reclaiming, uh, efforts toward it.
Valuing Marine Mammals to Drive Policy Action
It’s about valuing these animals more than it is anything. We know that the animals do better when we are less obnoxious in the environment. Now the question is, what do you tell… How do you get policy makers and the public who these policy makers answer to to value these animals such that they will vote on, do you do three day shipping from Amazon versus two day shipping in Amazon to make marine mammals, you know, slightly less annoyed in the ocean that those are the trade offs really.
Lauren Hartling: Right. So I guess that’s kind of why having these conversations is so great because there’s a lot of information out there. Maybe not everyone has access to being able to share that with people and getting them to care about, you know, all these animals that we’re talking about. And in turn, we are connected to that as well.
And then having us, the people kind of stand up and say, I care about this. Yes. Make things take longer to get to me.
Jason Bruck: Yeah, we have the Marine mammal commission in the United States, and I think, I might get this number wrong it’s only a few cents a year to have a Marine mammal commission in the United States.
Lauren Hartling: I looked it up. It’s not a couple of cents. It’s 1 cent. One American cent per American per year is what funds the Marine mammal commission. And in the United States when you have about 328 million people, that ends up being a decent amount of money to fund this kind of work.
Jason Bruck: And if people understand that, you know, that cutting this organization, this is like basically our marine mammal regulators, the folks that are in charge of enforcing the aspects of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and yet, oh, you know, it’s been on the chopping block through this administration multiple times.
But if the public understood, hey, you know, this is a big organization that really helps out these animals, you know, is it worth a few cents a year for you to have this?
Lauren Hartling: Right? It’s so much value for such a little amount in your taxes.
Jason Bruck: Exactly. And, and you know, people think, Oh, if I cut all this in a cut all that and I cut all this, it’ll, you know, I’ll, I’ll have more money back.
Well, yeah. You get a few cents on this thing.
Is that what you wanted?
Lauren Hartling: Yeah, no, let’s protect the oceans. That’s a far better way to spend our money.
Jason Bruck: Exactly.
Bottlenose Dolphins as a Model Species
Lauren Hartling: I know that a lot of your work answering the questions that you’ve been answering have been on bottlenose dolphins, and I was kind of wondering, do bottlenose dolphins end up being a really good model species for your type of research?
Jason Bruck: They’re a model species because they’re the species that a lot of this stuff started in. So let’s say I want to do this type of the type of work I’ve done, but I want to go to belugas and do it.
Well, the trick to that would be. We don’t know what a lot of their communication means. We don’t have a handle on their signals.
We don’t have a handle on their signature system yet. Um.
On belugas, right. We have a sense that maybe orcas are group signature based. They don’t have individualized signatures the same way that bottlenose dolphins do. They have group signatures, they have a different family structure. So that may maybe make sense for them.
Um, I know a lot of researchers now are starting to get into the business of trying to figure out, okay, we know bottlenose dolphins have signature whistles, which other toothed whales have signature whistles in whichever, what evidence can we provide for that?
And so for them, this is the kind of work where it’s, it’s. It’s, they prefer the type of work where they go out and they do the types of studies that have been done before, but on new species. And in that sense, they are developing the research that needs to be done for others to add on to that and say, okay, now that we know that these animals have signatures, we can do that and then you can ask the questions. You know, what about this animal’s ecology makes it different than the bottlenose dolphin, which is seemingly our comparison species.
Um, I know that we’ve done a lot of that type of work, uh, you know, in terms of, you know, looking at, okay, what are the differences between a porpoise and a dolphin? You know, porpoises have a little more of a live fast die young kind of approach to their existence. And. As a result, you know, you see a lot of changes in their biology, their behavior, their physiology as a result of the fact that they are not the same thing as a bottlenose dolphin.
Lauren Hartling: And I guess that’s, it’s fascinating too, because I think that’s a really good point to make that sure, they look like a dolphin or there’s all these things out there that they all look so similar. You think that you could use a bottlenose dolphin as a model for everyone,
Research on marine mammals is hard… all of it.
With the research that you’ve done, in your experience, what do you find is the most challenging part?
Jason Bruck: All of it. Cognition is… they’re all difficult in different ways. Communication studies are very complex in the analysis level, because you’re sitting there with just mountains and mountains of data that you’ve got to try to get through using every tool you can. Um, so in the analysis level, communication stuff is hard.
In the cognition stuff it’s the training cause you gotta train the animal to, for example, with our luck, with our visual field study, the dolphins are trained to whistle when they see a light. And those lights are positioned around their head in a, in a, uh, a geodesic dome, like one of those Hoberman sphere toys that you get from the science museum that you can expand and contract.
We get up, we have giant ones of those that the dolphins swim into. And then they’ll whistle when they see the light around their heads and We put the lights around their heads. Um, but that level of training has taken six months to get them to be able to do that. And, but once the, once we have all those data, the analysis will be quite simple.
You either saw the light or you didn’t. Um, so all of this stuff is challenging at different ways.
I mean, obviously with the applied stuff, I mean, we’re going to build a drone. We’re going to build what is probably a $1.5 million tool, um, which at all levels, that’s been difficult. It’s difficult to always source all the funding you need. It’s difficult to build and construct these things.
Um, and then you are on top of it now that you’re working with wild animals, so you’re going to have to get regulatory approval. And I want people to understand this. If you were interested in getting into marine mammal science, there is no more difficult animal in the world to study than a Marine mammal period.
The fact that they all look alike and it takes a lot of time for you to actually get the skill of being able to identify one versus another.
I’ve now gotten to the point where I can do that. I, I’m pretty good at telling apart the dolphins that I’ve worked with for like 10 years,
Lauren Hartling: And what are you looking at to tell them apart?
Jason Bruck: Dorsal fins. I’m looking at shape you know, shape of the head a little bit different marks on their body. And then sometimes their behavior, just, you know, the first dolphin that always swims up to me is this one. It’s now my graduate students who are keeping track of it better than I do because I, my brain is no longer, like I’ve got like 70 some dolphins in my head that I have to feed that I, that I , can identify. And I think I’m at my limit.
Studying Marine Mammals From a Boat is Not for Everyone
Lauren Hartling: There’s, yeah. Well, and I’m thinking I get seasick and I’ve been around water my whole life. And I’m trying to imagine, you know, doing research at an aquarium. You’re mostly not moving. But then imagining myself being on a boat with you guys doing your drone study, I don’t know how much help I’d be, because I can’t handle being on the water that long.
Jason Bruck: We had that. When I was an undergrad, we had this trip to Costa Rica that you would do. Uh, for people who are interested doing Marine mammal research. And we went out to study the a, at the time that we thought they were , Tucuxi I guess they’re Guiana dolphins as they’ve been reclassified as Guiana dolphins, but they were Tucuxi and bottlenose or Guiana and bottlenose interactions.
And I remember we were at this one point where I think it was myself, my advisor, and maybe one or two other people who were not seasick. Everybody else was feeding the fish off the side of the boat. And I’ve never had like three or four of the data sheets in front of me. Like I had the camera data sheet and the still camera data sheet and the hydrophone data sheet, and I think I was operating the hydrophone
Lauren Hartling: You’re holding this whole operation together.
Jason Bruck: Well, I gave my advisor credit. He was doing a lot of that too, and maybe the one or two other people, but the rest of the people, I mean, there was a lot of seasick people on that trip. And you don’t know until you get out there and find out, you know, in which case, you know, a lot of people spend a lot of money to go out to Costa Rica and not be able to get on the boats as much…
Lauren Hartling: So sympathetic.
Jason Bruck: Yeah. It’s, it’s rough. Um. But it’s, it’s, yeah. That’s another aspect of this whole thing. There has to, there’s a biological limit. Um, you might be the most adept Marine mammologist out there when it comes to the book learning. You might know the most, you might have the most kind of well developed sense of theory, can’t do anything.
Lauren Hartling: Oh, that’d be the worst. The best to find that out early on in your studies. Can you be on a boat?
Jason Bruck: That’s, that’s, the hope.
Lauren Hartling: I think my very last question for you is, if you had one thing that you wanted the world to know about what you know, what would it be?
Dolphins are not People
Jason Bruck: Dolphins are not people with fins. That’s my big one.
Dolphins are their own thing and respect them for that. They’re not you. They don’t have to be either.
Lauren Hartling: And I think that applies to all animals, that you are a human and they are them.
I really like that.
So I want to thank you so much, Jason, for taking time to speak with us today to share your wealth of knowledge to let me pick your brain. I really appreciate your time and I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day.
Jason Bruck: Well, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.
Outro and Credits
Lauren Hartling: If you want to do some more reading on your own about some of the things that Jason talked about in this podcast. I’m going to have links and references on the podcast.porpoise.org website so you can check those links out there. As always, if you have any questions about this podcast, if you have anything you want me to find out for you, I encourage you, email me, [email protected] and I will get those questions answered for you.
And if you have any comments or feedback, we’d love to hear that as well.
I also want to send out a huge thank you to Marcus Wernicke and Derek Jang for helping to edit and pull this podcast together. And again, a huge thank you to dr Jason Bruck for giving his time to this podcast and letting me really pick his brain.
I really want to thank you as well for joining us on this episode of not a dolphin. Clearly we focused more on dolphins today, but that is all a part of it. Looking at the ocean and all it has to offer, so thank you for joining me. Have a great day and go fluke and learn something.