Wildlife

Wildlife Wednesday: do octopuses dream of underwater sheep?

Plus: Hvaldamir the spy whale, White Gladis the vengeful orca, the sparrows that switch part of their brain off, and the decayed giant washed up on P.E.I.

Highly intelligent invertebrates, octopuses are known to have strong learning and memory abilities. Now scientists are considering the possibility that these masters of camouflage also have dreams. (Photo: Joachim S. Müller/Flickr)
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Octopuses, part of a group of soft-bodied molluscs called cephalopods, are known as the most cognitively-advanced invertebrates. Now, scientists are speculating that they may have the ability to dream. 

A video captured by researchers at Rockefeller University in New York seems to show Costello the octopus having a nightmare. While he was sleeping, Costello’s skin began changing colour, something that octopuses often do to camouflage themselves. Then, he began curling his arms above his head and spinning around, seemingly in distress. Seconds later his tank became clouded by black ink, a typical defence behaviour that octopuses use against predators. 

This sequence of behaviour suggests to researchers that Costello was having a nightmare about being attacked by a predator. However, marine biologists are calling for a peer reviewed study to be completed before making any definitive statements about this incident. It is possible that this so-called dream was Costello’s individual response to a different stimulus.

Despite other possible explanations, scientists at Rockefeller University are intrigued by Costello’s behaviour and they hope that other marine biologists will look for this behaviour in future studies. 

From Russia with love

The Norwegian domestic intelligence agency believes a tame beluga whale, most recently seen off the coast of Sweden, is a trained Russian spy. (Photo: Unsplash/Tengyart)
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Hvaldamir the beluga: cute, friendly and… Russian spy? The tame whale, which first caught the attention of Norway’s domestic intelligence agency in 2019, has now been spotted off the coast of Sweden. According to OneWhale, an organization that has been tracking Hvaldamir for years, until recently the beluga was slowly moving southwards along Norway’s coast, then suddenly sped away from Norwegian waters towards Sweden. 

Named by Norwegian locals combining the Norwegian word for whale, “hval,” with the name of Russian President Valdimir Putin, Hvaldamir was first discovered wearing a Russian harness by Norwegian boats near the island Ingoya. “Equipment of St. Petersburg” was written on the harness, which was equipped with a GoPro camera mount. Russia has never addressed the claim that Hvaldimir is a spy.

As for the reason behind Hvaldimir’s sudden change in movement, researchers are still uncertain, but there are two likely causes. The first is that Hvaldimir’s hormone levels have prompted him to search for a mate. The second is that Hvaldmir is searching for other beluga whales to socialize with. Even for a whale, life as a spy can be lonely.

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The revenge of the orca 

Orcas are highly intelligent species that can coordinate hunting tactics to take down prey. (Photo: Pixabay)
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Her name is White Gladis, and she’s out for vengeance. For three years, a killer whale has been terrorizing sailors around the Strait of Gibraltar, known as Orca Alley, ramming boats, breaking rudders and piercing hulls. The attacks have continued to increase, with 29 reported incidents in four months. The latest victim, a British sailor’s boat, saw a group of orcas ramming into the vessel before calling authorities for help. The orca are reported to have torn off bits of the boat over the course of an hour. 

Orcas are the largest member of the dolphin family and can weigh more than 9,000 kilos. Growing to be upwards of nine metres in length, these magnificent animals have the power to sink ships all together, and now experts believe White Gladis may even be passing on this unruly behaviour to other whales. 

Although these incidents have baffled scientists, some believe it is a result of a negative encounter White Gladis may have had with a boat, such as a collision or becoming entrapped during illegal fishing. Although it is unlikely the orcas are directly teaching the young, there’s a belief that the behaviour has spread through imitation.   

Magnetic Migration

Researchers at Western University studied how white-throated sparrows use a specific region in their brain to sense the Earth’s magnetic field for navigation. (Photo: Simon Pierre Barrette/Wikimedia Commons)
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The Earth’s magnetic field is generated in the Earth’s core and shields the planet from the sun. Though humans cannot sense the Earth’s magnetic field, other animals, such as salmon, sea turtles and migratory birds use it for navigation. 

A recent study conducted by researchers at Western University’s Advanced Facility for Avian Research examined how white-throated sparrows perceive the Earth’s magnetic field. Researchers studied a particular region of the brain called cluster N, which migratory birds use to sense the magnetic field. The study was the first in North America to examine this region of the brain.

Researchers found that white-throated sparrows can activate their N cluster at night to sense the magnetic field. Flying at night allows them to avoid the heat and predators. When the birds were resting however, they were able to make their N cluster go dormant so as not to sense the magnetic field when they didn’t need it. 

Understanding how migratory birds travel using the magnetic field and other indicators, such as the sun and stars is important for bird conservation. If we know how and where migratory birds travel we can do more to mitigate our impact on these species. 

“The UN of sea turtles”

Leatherback sea turtles from all over Central and South America have been identified in Canadian waters, where they feast before hedging home. (Photo: Jordan Beard/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0])
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A giant leatherback sea turtle — the world’s largest species of sea turtle and increasingly rare — was found washed up on P.E.I. in May. The deceased leatherback, discovered by residents of Fernwood, P.E.I., was likely heading south to nest on the beach it hatched — a behaviour called “natal homing.” There, it would have reunited with family members. Badly decomposed, the leatherback most likely died last year from being entangled in fishing gear. But what was this gentle giant doing in Canadian waters?

Kathleen Martin, executive director of the Canadian Sea Turtle Network, told CBC that the turtles are known to enter Canadian waters this time of year to feed on jellyfish. Protected in Canada under the Species at Risk Act, leatherback sea turtles from all over Central and South America have been identified in Canada’s waters, where they feast before heading home. “We’re like the UN of sea turtles up here, where everybody comes and hangs out,” said Martin. “It’s really important that we keep them safe here … and that we do all the work we can to learn about them.”

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