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Category: Marine Mammals

Dolphins' ability to mimic one another is tested in new 'blindfold' study

A dolphin wears eye cups to determine whether he can imitate his sighted companion

GRASSY KEY, Fla. — In a lagoon in the Florida Keys, trainer Emily Guarino blindfolds a male dolphin named Tanner with special latex goggles. "You ready, Tanner?" Guarino asks the young dolphin, waiting beside his companion, Kibby.

At a command, another trainer gets Kibby to say "hello" by flapping his fins on the water, splashing noisily in the enclosed lagoon at the Dolphin Research Center here, which houses 22 dolphins and is one of the leaders in dolphin cognitive studies.

"Can you imitate what Kibby is doing?" Guarino asks Tanner. Within seconds, Tanner is splashing "hello" -- a seemingly extraordinary feat given the blindfolded dolphin appears to only be using sound to perceive and imitate the actions of his fellow dolphin.

It turns out dolphins are master imitators that somehow can "see" their environment despite blindfolds. But exactly how such a dolphin can mimic another's action is a matter of ongoing scientific study.

Dr. Kelly Jaakkola, director of the nonprofit marine mammal research center, said the research to better understand dolphin intelligence will surely help further their conservation. She said such studies may also be helpful in better grasping the complexities of human intelligence.

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Rare western Pacific gray whale is tracked by scientists on his migration from Russia to Alaska

Gray Whale

ANCHORAGE — A highly endangered whale is making good time as it continues its journey east from Russian waters toward Alaska.

U.S. and Russia researchers have tracked the 13-year-old male western Pacific gray whale to a location about 80 miles north of St. Paul Island, part of Alaska's Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea.

Bruce Mate, director of Oregon State University's Marine Mammal Institute, said the whale was detected there Thursday. Foul weather has hampered updates from the satellite-monitored radio tag affixed to the whale by researchers in September.

"The weather out there is really crummy," he said.

Researchers have been tracking the whale since they tagged it off Russia's Sakhalin Island. They had hoped to tag 12 western Pacific gray whales but were limited to one, on the last day of field work, by typhoons and gales.

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'Cove' star Ric O'Barry meets with Sting about Taiji dolphin slaughter

StingSting wants to help save dolphins still being brutally slaughtered in Japan, but says the best way is by starting a debate, not by forcing foreign opinion.

The British music star met backstage at a Tokyo concert hall Wednesday with Ric O'Barry, the star of the "The Cove," the Academy Award-winning documentary that depicts the dolphin hunt in the town of Taiji in southwestern Japan.

The two have been friends since the Sundance Film Festival two years ago, where "The Cove" had its first major showing.

The film, directed by Louie Psihoyos, shows dolphins driven into a cove and stabbed by fishermen on small boats, turning the water red with blood, as the dolphins writhe in agony.

"I was blown away by the movie," Sting told The Associated Press before his concert. "We should not be eating dolphins."

Sting, in Asia for his Symphonicity tour, said he's sympathetic to the save-the-dolphins view in "The Cove" but that the best approach is "through dialogue," noting that many Japanese are also outraged by dolphin killing.

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Record number of manatees died in Florida last year, many due to 'cold stress'

Manatees

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A record number of manatees died in Florida in 2010, and officials blame many of the deaths on the year's unusually cold weather.

Statistics released this week from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission show that 767 manatees died last year. Of those deaths, 279 were attributed to "cold stress."

Cold weather also contributed to the deaths of 21 of 96 newborn manatees.

State veterinarian Matrine DeWit says it's the worst year for manatees since the department began keeping records in the 1970s.

Manatees are most at risk when the waters of the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean dip below 68 degrees. If they can't find warmer water from natural springs or power plants, they can suffer lesions and risk infections.

RELATED MARINE MAMMAL NEWS:

-- Tamara Lush / Associated Press

Photo: A female manatee and her calf  relax in Florida's Crystal River in 2005. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Rise in sea lion shootings reported in California

Sea Lion X-Ray SAN FRANCISCO — The weak and woozy California sea lion found on a San Francisco Bay-area beach in December with buckshot embedded in its skull has become an all-too-common sight for wildlife officials.

Wildlife officials have seen a slight rise in the shooting of ocean mammals in recent years, and investigators often struggle to find a culprit. There are few witnesses to such shootings, making it nearly impossible to bring a case.

"We always try to do an investigation, but unless there's an eyewitness to the shooting it's hard to make a case for our enforcement folks," said Joe Cordaro, a wildlife biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who tracks reports of the shootings.

NOAA said there were 43 reported marine mammal shootings in 2009 in the waters off the California coast -- nine more than in 2008 and 14 more than five years earlier. Of the reported shootings in 2009, all were sea lions. And officials say many more cases probably go unreported.

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WikiLeaks releases documents about anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd

The Sea Shepherd vessel Steve Irwin

Japanese and American officials discussed taking action to weaken a prominent anti-whaling group, with Tokyo insisting that Sea Shepherd's confrontations on the high seas actually hurt efforts to reduce whaling, U.S. diplomatic cables show.

The U.S. representative to the International Whaling Commission, Monica Medina, discussed revoking the U.S.-based conservation group's tax-exempt status during a meeting with senior officials from the Fisheries Agency of Japan in November 2009, according to the documents released by WikiLeaks on Monday.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's yearly protest campaigns -- which chase Japan's whaling fleet in boats trying to disrupt the hunt by fouling fishing lines and throwing rancid butter at whalers -- have drawn high-profile donors and volunteers, and spawned the popular Animal Planet series "Whale Wars." In Japan, the harassment is seen by some as foreign interference in national affairs, making politicians wary of getting involved.

Action against Sea Shepherd would be a "major element" in achieving success at international negotiations on the number of whales killed each year, the cables cite the director general of Japan's fisheries agency, Katsuhiro Machida, as saying.

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Florida cold snap sends manatees toward the warmth of power plants

Manatees

APOLLO BEACH, Fla. — People aren't the only ones in Florida who don't like cold weather. Manatees -- those giant aquatic mammals with the flat, paddle-shaped tails -- are swimming out of the chilly Gulf of Mexico waters and into warmer springs and power plant discharge canals. On Tuesday, more than 300 manatees floated in the outflow of Tampa Electric's Big Bend Power Station.

"It's like a warm bathtub for them," said Wendy Anastasiou, an environmental specialist at the power station's manatee viewing center. "They come in here and hang out and loll around."

Cold weather can weaken manatees' immune systems and eventually kill them. State officials said 2010 has been a deadly year for the beloved animals: between Jan. 1 and Dec. 17, 246 manatees died from so-called "cold stress." During the same time period in 2009, only 55 manatees died from the cold. In 2008, only 22 manatees succumbed to chilly temperatures.

Manatee deaths documented from Jan. 1 through Dec. 5 are nearly double the five-year average for that time period, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission statistics.

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Wildlife rehabilitators still hard at work trying to help animal victims of Gulf oil spill

Oil Spill Dolphin

NEW ORLEANS — A baby sea turtle escaped from the jaws of a shark, only to get stuck in oil spilled from BP's well in the Gulf of Mexico. A young dolphin apparently was attacked by his mother, then swam into oil.

The animals are among thousands rescued since more than 200 million gallons of oil began gushing from the Macondo well about 50 miles southeast of the Mississippi River Delta, and among dozens still at Gulf Coast rescue centers five months after the well was capped.

Since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, rescue officials say 2,079 birds, 456 sea turtles, some terrapins and two dolphins have been plucked from the oil.

Another 2,263 birds, 18 turtles and four dolphins were found dead with oil on them. All are being dissected to tell whether it was the crude from the BP well that killed them.

Caring for the animals can be time-consuming and costly, an ongoing legacy of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and identifying whether BP is at fault is a complex matter for those working at the centers.

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Alaska sues over planned fishing restrictions aimed at protecting sea lions

Steller Sea Lions

ANCHORAGE — The state of Alaska filed a lawsuit Tuesday in an effort to stop a federal agency's plan to protect endangered sea lions by restricting fishing in the western Aleutian Islands.

Gov. Sean Parnell said the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to make a rational connection between what it found and the conclusion it reached that fishing needs to be curtailed in the far western Aleutians because sea lions aren't getting enough to eat.

"The agency's conclusion that additional fishing restrictions are necessary is not supported by the best available scientific information," Parnell said.

The state asked the court to issue a ruling to prevent NMFS' plan from being implemented Jan. 1.

Last week, the federal agency announced that commercial mackerel and cod fisheries in the western Aleutians would be restricted. The state argues that restricted fishing isn't necessary when the population of western Steller sea lions is growing between 1% and 1.5% a year.

"This decision will have immediate and significant impacts on local communities and fishermen in the area," the governor said.

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State troopers escort wayward sea lion off Oregon highway and return it to ocean

Sea Lion Rescue

YACHATS, Ore. — A wayward sea lion trying to scoot down a highway along the Oregon coast got an escort from state troopers.

The Oregon State Police says the animal apparently entered U.S. Highway 101 through a state park near Yachats (yah-hahts) and weaved in and out of traffic for about half a mile.

Troopers and a local fire and rescue unit used batons and plastic boards designed to keep patients immobile as they flanked the sea lion and guided it along the side of highway.

The animal was led back into the Pacific Ocean after the procession guided it to an oceanside state park about a quarter of a mile down the road from where it was found.

RELATED SEA LION STORIES:

-- Associated Press

Photo: The sea lion is guided back to the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11. Credit: Oregon State Police / Associated Press

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