The Songs of Whales and Elephants

“The ocean is really huge. When you get out on a little boat, you know it.
You’re clinging to a cork. And out there, rolling around and swimming through and perfectly at home in the waves are these enormous animals. And by golly, they’re singing. And so what that has done for me is to make me feel that what lies ahead is absolutely limitless. We are not at the pinnacle of human knowledge.
We are just beginning.”  –  Katy Payne

Photo by Silvana Palacios on

Katy Payne is an acoustic biologist who has studied whales off the wild coast of Argentina and studied elephants in the rainforests of Africa. She discovered that humpback whales compose ever-changing songs. Similarly, she found that elephants also communicate across long distances by way of sounds that, like whale songs, are beyond human hearing. They are low sounds – infrasound – below our hearing range.

She is the author of Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants which tells the stories of elephants and their families that she has studied. They have names and personalities and are very social creatures. That includes their complex interactions with humans, especially those who love and protect them.

Photo by FUTURE KIIID on

I heard a rebroadcast of a radio program about her work and learned that she is a practicing Quaker. She is also a student of the spiritual philosopher Gurdjieff. Is there a spiritual side to studying nature? I believe there is and I think that might be particularly true of someone who studies nature and wildlife by listening, as opposed to capturing and dissecting a species, for example.

She studied both biology and music as an undergrad, so it seems fitting that she was one of the early group of scientists that discovered that whales communicate by song. More importantly, it was found that those songs are not something whales are born with and repeat over and over. The whales are “composers” and the songs are constantly evolving.

During the mating season, male humpbacks emit vocalizations that sound to human ears like barks, chirps, and moans. A whale’s unique song slowly evolves over a period of years, never returning to the same sequence of notes even after decades.

Joshua Smith, a doctoral student at the University of Queensland, Australia,  investigated songs of humpback whales during three seasons. “Singers are joining females with calves more often and singing for a much longer duration with them than with any other group,” Smith said, but he thinks it’s more likely that the songs are directed to females showing them the males’ fitness, based on their song qualities and allowing them to compare the males and choose the one they consider the fittest.

They are singing love songs

Planetary Intelligence

If I asked you about “planetary intelligence,” you might sarcastically say that there doesn’t seem to be very much of it. So, let me adjust your definition.

I came across the book, Ways of Being, which is about the different kinds of intelligence on our planet. That includes plant, animal, human, and artificial intelligence,

What does it mean to be intelligent? A typical answer to that from most people might be a discussion of people being “smart.” There might be some distinction between the knowledge ones acquires from reading and school and another kind of intelligence that seems to be natural or acquired outside school. But the focus would be on human intelligence.

Is intelligence something unique to humans? I’m sure that in centuries past, the idea that plants and even other animals could be “intelligent” wouldn’t be accepted. That has changed in the past 200 years and the much more recent advances in “artificial intelligence” have made the definition of intelligence itself much broader.

A dictionary might define intelligence as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge. Is that what plants and animals are doing when they adapt to changing ecosystems or communicate with each other? The intelligence of animals, plants, and the natural systems that surround us are being more closely studied and show us complexity and knowledge that we never knew existed.

The book’s author is James Bridle who is a technologist, artist, and philosopher who uses biology, physics, computation, literature, art, and philosophy to examine Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence. His goal is to find what can we learn from other forms of intelligence can make ourselves and the planet better. Maybe this new way of thinking about intelligence can even improve our technologies, societies, and even politics. Can we live better and more equitably with one another and the nonhuman world?

I listened to the book on audio and had to stop and rewind a few times. It can get pretty far out from what we normally think about intelligence.

One concept that stands out is “emergence.” That is a word used in many fields today. The shape of weather phenomena, such as hurricanes, are emergent structures. The development and growth of complex, orderly crystals within a natural environment is another example of an emergent process. Crystalline structures and hurricanes are said to have a self-organizing phase. Are they intelligent?

Water crystals forming on glass demonstrate an emergent, fractal process.

A few years ago, I read Bridle’s earlier book New Dark Age. It is indeed a dark look at the Internet, information overload, conspiracy theories, algorithms, and artificial intelligence. The latter seems to have grabbed hold of him and, though there is some optimism in the new book, his vision of AI is still dark.

While proponents of artificial intelligence still portray it as our friend or companion, AI often seems to be something to fear as it is strange in ways that seem like science fiction. Bridle doesn’t say it but AI sometimes seems to be more of “alien intelligence” than “artificial intelligence.” Not that it comes from other places in the universe, but that much like the sci-fi tales where aliens came to conquer our planet, AI might be an intelligence that will try to supplant us.

Okay, I’ll stop there because now I’m venturing into conspiracy theory land myself.

Long Lives

Long life is the wish of many of us. To live and be healthy into our 90s is a wonderful thing. People have been seeking ways to have longer lives for many centuries. And life expectancy is always improving.

In the Paleolithic age, it is estimated that at 15, life expectancy was 22 to 33 years. For 18th-century Massachusetts colonists who reached the age of 50, they could expect to live until 71, and those who were still alive at 60 could expect to reach 75.

The 2019-2020 world average life expectancy was 72.6–73.2 with females at 75.6 years and males at 70.8 years.

We may be evolving to longer lives, but many animals have us easily beat in that race. There are tortoises alive today that were 25 to 50 years old when Charles Darwin was born.

Marine animals can live for a thousand years—or possibly even forever. Terrestrial animals generally have shorter lifespans.

Can we discover their secret to long lives? yes, but it may not help us. Some secrets to longevity are immobility and slow growth rate. If an organism lives in the ocean that is a more stable environment than land, and the deeper you go, the less likely you are to die from a chance event.

Don’t be too depressed about your shorter lifespan. Consider a housefly whose life maxes out at about a month.

Amongst the mammals, the Arctic bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) is by far the longest-living mammal on Earth. The average age of captured whales is 60 to 70 years, but genome sequencing has led researchers to estimate life spans of at least 200 years. The colder waters of the north Atlantic and north Pacific Oceans help.

And a tortoise (Testudinidae) who was considered the last living representative of Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle named Harriet died of heart failure in 2006 at the age of 175. This year, a 187-year-old Seychelles tortoise named Jonathan made it into the Guinness World Records as the oldest known living land animal.

Take care. Stay cold. Go deep/.

Jonathan, who resided on the island of Saint Helena, a British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic Ocean.

A Full Moon By Any Other Name

The Full Moon for April appears tomorrow night and is frequently called the Pink Moon. But it won’t look pink at all.  This will also be our first of two “supermoons” for the year. But it won’t look supersized.

The supermoon term has rather recently been used to describe the astronomical phenomenon when the distance between the Moon and Earth is at its closest. In general terms, supermoons are 15% brighter and 7% bigger than regular full moons, but with the naked eye it won’t really look any bigger or brighter than it did last month if you saw it on a clear, dark night at the right time.

And not to be a lunar downer but the Pink Moon name came not frm the Moon’s color but what was blooming on Earth when this particular month showed a Full Moon.  If it has any color, it’s probably from lighting in the atmosphere from clouds or pollution.

The name had been used by some American Indian tribes for a very long time and it became popularized in the 1930s when the Old Farmer’s Almanac decided to include those  Native American names of the lunar months. It was literally the Full Moon When Pink Wildflowers Bloom, especially Phlox subulata. It is a common wildflower also known as moss pink and it is an early spring flower that grows across the eastern and central parts of North America.

phlox field
A field of pink, white and blue phlox    Photo: PxHere

Now, the plant is cultivated and you find it in many gardens as a ground cover. I see it called creeping phlox, moss phlox, moss pink, mountain phlox and my mother always called it mountain pinks. It covered our front rock garden when I was a child in pink, purple/blue and white and some of those plants traveled with me to my own home garden. As of today, mine are not blooming with this Full Moon, but I see them blooming in our area.

The Full Moon will be visible after the sunset but will be at peak illumination in the late evening. As always, it will look to the eye as “full” tonight and still on Tuesday.

It may not be quite a blooming spring in your backyard. The Algonquin people called this the Breaking Ice Moon. The Dakota referred to it as the Moon When the Streams Are Again Navigable. Obviously, those tribes were north of blooming moss pinks.

The Oglala call it the Moon of the Red Grass Appearing while for the Tlingit people, it’s the Budding Moon of Plants and Shrubs.

Many peoples called the May Full Moon the Flower Moon.

As I keep track of bloom dates in my own area year to year, I know that the dates change. Today, my garden and those of neighbors are full of fading daffodils and lots of tulips and magnolias and other flowering trees are blooming and dropping blossoms all around. Next year’s April Full Moon might not be exactly the same in the garden, but it will be close.

If you are more tuned in to wildlife than plants, you might prefer the names used by other tribes. How about the Frog Moon of the Cree or the Moon When the Ducks Come Back from the Lakota tradition? Do they fit in your microclimate?

One name that I had to research is from the Anishinaabe people. The Anishinabe Indian tribes of Canada were well-known for their birchbark canoes. Their April Full moon is known as the Sucker Moon. That name comes from a legend that during this time of the year, the suckerfish returns to lakes and rivers from the spirit world to purify water and aquatic animals.

The thing that attracts me to write about the Full Moon every month is that the names mean that people see a connection with nature. and with the Earth, heavens, and their own part of the planet.

Feeding Kittens to Boa Constrictors

Yes, my title is shocking. It’s an attention-getter, but I didn’t use it as clickbait and I didn’t make it up. It was the working title for a book by psychology professor Hal Herzog. His publisher wasn’t a fan of that title and it was published as Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals

Herzog’s work examines the contradictions in our relationships with animals. He wanted to answer questions such as “Does living with animals really make us healthier?” and “Why do we eat some animals and keep others as pets?”

On that first question, research shows that pets make people happier and healthier. There is also research that shows that pets, by way of caring for them and losing them, make people unhappy and unhealthy.

There is also research that posits that it is happier and healthier people who are more likely to have pets.

Pets also limit us with their needs, cost us money and cause much grief when they die. Americans spend $80 billion a year on their pets.

Cats that are allowed outside contribute to the deaths of 1-5 billion birds per year (estimates vary widely). So then is it better to trap cats indoors for their entire lives? Is it right to trap any animal in a cage, tank or wandering a mostly empty house or apartment?

Herzog’s work is in the field of anthrozoology. I don’t think I knew that word before I read the book. It is the study of interactions between humans and other animals. I knew anthropomorphic, which is the way we attach human characteristics to animals. This is not just the way a monkey or ape appears human, but how we attach human qualities to our pet dogs and cats.

The book is a nice combination of personal anecdotes and scientific research. Of course, this line of inquiry also has to consider moral and ethical positions we have, often paradoxical, about our relationship with animals.

For example, vegans buy animal flesh for their cats to eat.

Herzog had boa constrictors in his lab and they needed to be fed. Typically, they would buy live mice for them to eat. But he realized that there were kittens being euthanized at a local shelter that he could get for the boa constrictors. Feeding dead kittens to the snakes seemed more moral than killing mice. Right?

We generally don’t think of mice in the same way that we think of kittens. To further muddy the moral waters, Herzog’s daughter had a pet mouse. When it died, they made the shoebox coffin and the backyard burial with the typical ceremony. Later, he caught a mouse that had been trying to break into their kitchen in a trap. It was disposed of unceremoniously in the trash.  Why the differences?

That vegan with the cat will need to buy about 50 pounds of meat a year. Why not own a snake that requires about 5 pounds of meat per year? Cat versus snake. Not much of a contest.

He tells the story of someone who decides that keeping a bird caged is wrong. So, he frees the bird. And then he realizes that the bird will very likely die out in the wild.

It is no surprise that the World Wildlife Fund chose the Chinese Giant Panda as its symbol instead of the Chinese Giant Salamander.

Another story to consider is on a trip to Africa when he asks a native a few questions about dogs. “Would you allow a dog in your home?” The native is shocked. “Never!”  Would he allow it to eat food from the family table, or sleep in his bed? Would he give it hugs and let it kiss him? Looks of shock and disgust. Cultural differences.  Some we love. Some we hate. Some we eat.

For an easy entry into this difficult topic and more on Herzog’s research and book, listen to Our Animal Instincts, an episode of Hidden Brain from NPR.

You might also like to read Hal Herzog’s blog for Psychology Today.  He addresses other animal-human issues like Should Self-Driving Cars Spare People Over Pets? and Why Do Kids Become Less Attached To Pets As They Get Older?

Lost Skills: Tracking

Common woodland animal tracks

Spring has officially arrived but there are still plenty of days in Paradelle when the temperature is below freezing. People are thinking about, planning and cleaning up their gardens, but it’s not a frost-free time yet. This weekend we may even get some snow in our part of the world.

Winter is not my favorite season and dealing with snow is my least favorite part of winter, But one thing I do like about a fresh snowfall is that it gives me a chance to more easily do some animal tracking in the woods.

I have written here about getting lost and getting found. Part of that writing focused on “The Tracker,” Tom Brown, Jr., who lives in New Jersey.  I still marvel at Tom’s abilities as a tracker and his knowledge of the natural world. I feel like I am still learning and I like that process very much.

dog track

In my almost suburban woods, the most common tracks are often that of dogs and their owners.  I have to go off trails and paths to find wilder life. If you look in books about tracking, you usually find drawings of tracks like the one at the top of this post. They are very clear, but the chances of finding such a clear track in your tracking are not very good. Mud is a good track medium, so I often look beside creeks, ponds, or even vernal pools. Snow makes the entire woods easier for tracks.

coyote track

Where I track, a coyote track is a possibility and, as you can see, the tracks are very similar to their relative, the domestic dog. (No wolves in Paradelle, but they would also be quite similar.)

But snow melts and so tracks change rapidly. The snow can help you determine how long ago the animal passed based on the melting or crusting of the edges from an overnight freeze.

Deer are very common in my neighborhood. I can track them on my front lawn. Their tracks are distinctive hooves. The challenge for me in the woods tracking deer is determining where they stopped, took a leap, or how they moved over gravel and rock, crossed creeks, and ran. The ultimate for me is to track a deer right to its present location – which might be its day bedding area.


I like tracking because it is a problem-solving challenge. It uses your vision in a way that you don’t often use it in everyday life situations. You need to take in all the signs and signals of the woods – not just the tracks.

It is quite clear that almost all of these senses and this knowledge has been lost in our move from frontier to civilization. Do we need to be able to track animals? No. We don’t need this skill or the ability to name trees and plants or pick out a star or planet in the night sky. But I think that having all those skills and many other lost ones has benefits today.

I cannot move as silently as the Native American scouts. I still find myself looking in tracking guides when I am in the field to confirm a species. No one will call on me to find humans lost in the wilderness, as they do with Tom Brown, Jr. But I have skills beyond those of my neighbors and friends.

raccoon “hands”

I know that those tracks in the alleyway are raccoons checking out my trash cans with their almost-human “hands.” that can push the handle locks on those cans.


I will walk out to my backyard with my morning coffee in the snow and track the many squirrels who have been busy.  But there are more challenging tracks and bigger animals to find.

bear black

The “big game” for my area is the black bear. Bears appear in my area which is too suburban for hunting, but the state does have a controlled hunt season for bear and deer. Though finding fresh bear tracks is exciting, I might not track the bear’s path forward to find it, but instead, follow it back to see where it has been and what it has been doing.

I used to teach classes in tracking at the Pequest Trout Hatchery and Education Center in New Jersey. My favorite was a winter one that, with the cooperation of the weather, was called “Stories in the Snow.” The class was very much a problem-solving session besides teaching the basics of identifying tracks. The goal was to find the story in the snow. Beyond knowing who left a track, I wanted people to think about why the animal was there, what it was doing, and where might it be going. Could we actually track it down and find its home, bedding area, or the animal itself?

Some finds were more spectacular than others. I would go out a few hours before the class and look for places that would definitely have tracks, such as around the fishing pond filled with trout and along the Pequest River which also held trout.

My classes were open to children and adults and I often had parents with their children which was great. Kids have such a different way of viewing the natural world. You might have a 5-year-old who guesses that a track is from a dinosaur or a 10-year-old who sees a chipmunk track go “through a tree” and surmises that it must have “climbed up the tree for a better view.”

What happened here?

The photo above is one of those “wow” finds for a class. What happened here? It looks like someone created a design in the snow. Animal tracks often cross after one has passed, but when animals cross paths in real time, you usually get a story. This photo tells the story of a rabbit (tracks) who met up with an eagle (“tracks” from its wings). Did the eagle swoop down and get the rabbit, or did the rabbit escape?

I might get one last tracking session in the snow in early April. Then, in the soft mud of spring and after rainfall, I will walk the woods in greater temperature comfort but more challenged by the conditions.

And maybe I will finally find where that fox that sometimes walks through my backyard actually lives.