Virtual Exhibit at the Sesnon Gallery: What makes us human?
Humans are often defined by their intelligence - their ability to harness their disproportionally large brains to "think about alternative futures and make deliberate choices accordingly". This ability has led humans to think of themselves as unique from other animals. Often the only way for us to empathize with other animals is when we recognize/witness our likeness in them--proof of that animal's intelligence. We often seek to assess the intelligence of animals using tests that fit our rigid mold of enlightenment. Yet, these wild creatures are each adapted to their own measure of excellence- what they need to survive.
How shall we measure intelligence in the northern elephant seal, who swims halfway to Japan and back to the same exact location each year? Shall we withhold compassion, moderation, and protection for those animals that fail to meet our own standards of intelligence? I work at the interface of art and science to inspire awe, admiration, and respect for the creatures which occupy our oceans. To inspire the belief that these organisms and ecosystems deserve our care and compassion.
It seems that the focus should not be on the extent to which these animals can conform to our own understanding of intelligence, but the extent to which we can learn from them. My art and research illustrate incredible animal behaviors which I believe can teach us lessons about ourselves and at the very least, inspire us about the many ways to be.
This multimedia essay follows my personal journey through scientific inquiry and artistic expression to inspire awe and respect for the unique intelligence of the creatures which inhabit the underwater realm. I will go through four anecdotes, retracing my development as a scientist and artist, and show you how I became inspired by the intelligence of each of these incredible creatures.
As a young girl, I was first inspired by the intelligence of the ocean's creatures when I was given the opportunity to "train" a dolphin in the Ocean Explorers program at Long Marine Lab at UC Santa Cruz. We held target sticks above and below the surface of the water and watched as the animal diligently followed a path around the pool. This was such a simple demonstration from an animal capable of so much more, but it was enough to spark my interest and fuel my thirst to learn more.
Meeting Primo for the first time during Ocean Explorers Camp NMFS 19590
Many years later, as a PhD student, I have had the chance to work directly with Primo and to examine this animal's incredible anatomy, physiology, and neurobiology. My love for underwater photography combined with my research when I was able to photograph Primo underwater during a trial where we measured his blood oxygenation during exercise.
This photo was featured in his obituary here:
Primo outfitted in his custom O’Neill heart rate monitor surf suit. (NMFS 19590)
I first met the octopus in an undergraduate
research position volunteering for a professor
named Dr. Roy Caldwell. We would sit in quiet
wonder, observing these mysterious animals for hours.
I N T E L L I G E N C E A S P R E D A T O R
My project was to observe the feeding behavior of these
creatures. We would feed them various prey items and watched what happened. The octopus would handle its snail prey in exactly the same way each time, by drilling a small hole in the same location, taking strategic advantage of the structural weakness of the snail's shell.
A lethal blue ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena lunulata) in the Caldwell lab.
Here are two Littorina littorea snails with matching drill holes, next to a photo of the octopus, Abdopus aculeatus, which ate the snails.
I N T E L L I G E N C E A S P R E Y
I also assisted with a study by a graduate student who was looking directly at the brain of octopuses, and specifically at their ability to feel and adjust to the sensation of pain or fear. She induced an animal to autotomize (drop) an arm and then looked at the sensitivity of that brain region to sensation. Because octopuses are so neurally and behaviorally complex, it has been hypothesized that they might experience pain similar to vertebrates. What she discovered was not a stereotyped response to pain, but instead a different and complex response to the injury, which included hypersensitivity and protectivity. If we are to define intelligence and empathy by recognizing human-like pain in others, where does this leave us in the case of the highly intelligent octopus?
Go to this link to read more about the study: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24239646/
I was so moved by the complexity and extent of the octopus brain that I used it as inspiration for two woodburnings on custom hollow wooden surfboards crafted by Ventana Surfboards & Supplies. The first woodburning shows the delicate nervous system of Octopus vulgaris, which is unique and unparalleled among invertebrates and even rivals that of dogs in terms of the number of neurons (500,000,000!). Each sucker is innervated with 10,000 neurons which collectively allow the arms to think, feel, and taste independently of the octopus's brain. Its arms may work in tandem or independently of its centralized brain.
Near the end of my undergraduate education, my fascination with intelligence and the brain led me to the story of sleep. I thought about what I had learned in a human sleep deprivation lab at UC Berkeley- how fundamental sleep was to our development, health, and happiness. I thought back to the dolphin I had met at that summer camp years ago and wondered how that animal kept its brain so sharp while only sleeping with half its brain at a time, a phenomenon called "unihemispheric sleep" which had always intrigued me.
I decided to google "Unihemispheric dolphin sleep" which led me to two researchers and experiences which would define the trajectory of my research for the next ten years...
This infographic I made demonstrates the sleeping patterns of marine mammals compared to those of humans.
the Northern Fur Seal
Those researchers, Drs. Oleg Lyamin and Jerry Siegel worked with Dr. Lev Mukhametov, the scientist who had discovered unihemispheric sleep in dolphins in 1977. I was thrilled when they invited me to join them in Russia to study sleep in marine mammals.
I would help with sleep studies at night, but during the day, my task was to train a young female northern fur seal named Knopka (meaning "Button") to recognize and discriminate between different shapes. I first trained her to fixate on a target stick (shown to the right). Then, gradually, I introduced a task where she would be presented with one shape and then have to find that same shape when it was presented alongside a different shape. At first, she had an almost random success rate. Gradually, she started to get every single one right. I was shocked and very pleased with her performance. Then, we switched to the final apparatus, where the stimuli were presented in a blind fashion so that the experimenter didn't even know which one was the right answer. She started getting them all wrong. I was very disappointed, feeling like she hadn't learned anything all along. What I slowly realized was that, yes, maybe she was not performing the task, but she was able to learn to read me well enough to anticipate the right answer each time. And that is, what I would call, intelligence.
The northern fur seal I trained to perform shape discrimination tasks.
Meanwhile, I was learning all about unihemispheric sleep. I found out that these fur seals might even be more incredible than the dolphins that had fascinated me when I was young, because they switch from sleeping like humans on land (with both hemispheres of their brain) to sleeping like dolphins (in only one hemisphere) when they enter the water. When they sleep unihemispherically in the water, they sleep in a jughandle posture where they have one open eye directed to the water (contralateral to the waking hemisphere) and one closed eye directed to the air (contralateral to the sleeping hemisphere).
Read the paper we published to learn more about the patterns of eye closure during unihemispheric sleep in fur seals:
When I get into bed at night, I think about marine mammals who do this so differently, with brains not so different from our own. This inspired a hand-drawn animation I created to show the unique sleep patterns of fur seals:
Immerse yourself in the surreal realm of underwater dreams, where kelp fronds refract the sun's rays and curious seals weave in and out of the underwater forest. This animation shows the adventure of an aquatic explorer who meets a fur seal companion beneath the waves. Later, the woman dreams of the same encounter, but from the perspective of the fur seal. She dreams of what it must be like to sleep like a fur seal, contorted at the surface with three flippers above the water, with one flipper lazily paddling to maintain this posture. She imagines opening just one eye, directed towards the water, to survey the aquatic realm for danger in the form of predators or fellow seals. She imagines that this eye is wired to the half of her brain which is on the other side of her body. She imagines that this half of the brain is awake and vigilant, while the other half of the brain lazily drifts in and out of consciousness. As the fur seal, she awakens herself as she slips into the water and later again as she playfully blows a bubble.
the Northern Elephant Seal
After my introduction to sleep, I was hooked. When I looked at graduate schools, people would tease me because I was absolutely, stubbornly obsessed with sleep. I found my dream school, UC Santa Cruz, where I was able to study sleep with supportive mentors, Drs. Dan Costa and Terrie Williams, who were equally as enthralled by the questions of sleep and brain function as I was. I was introduced to yet another charismatic large marine mammal, the northern elephant seal. These incredible creatures can dive over a mile deep and travel over 10,000 kilometers to the middle of Pacific and back. While they embark on these enormous journeys, they are continuously diving, spending less than 2% of the time above the surface and 98% underwater. Their brains seem to be fortified somehow against sleep deprivation and oxygen deprivation during nearly continuous diving activity.
Three sleepy northern elephant seal pups at Año Nuevo. NMFS #23188.
Below is an infographic I made communicating the annual life history of a northern elephant seal named Phyllis. Drone photos under NMFS#23188
The one question I kept asking: how do they sleep?!
It turns out, researchers before me were curious too. Using what was available at the time, researchers studied sleep in twelve elephant seal pups on land, using minimally invasive needle electrodes. They discovered that elephant seals sleep during very long breath holds where they cycle through slow wave sleep and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, doing what our brain does in hours in minutes. To put this into perspective, breath holding during sleep in humans is pathological and is called Obstructive Sleep Apnea. Humans will wake up from apneas where their blood oxygen can be depleted in a jolt. Over time, these persistent disturbances can build up over time, causing negative health effects like obesity and depression.
My dissertation aims to create non-invasive devices, which use the same technology as is used to measure sleep in humans to measure the unique sleep patterns of elephant seals. These devices must pick up tiny, microvolt changes in brain activity and withstand two thousand meters of pressure. After years of hard work and incredible collaborations at The Marine Mammal Center and Año Nuevo State Park, we've developed a device that can non-invasively record sleep in freely moving elephant seals. My dissertation research will continue to investigate and report these unique sleep patterns, but for now I will leave you with this:
What test do you use to assess the intelligence of an elephant seal, which navigates perfectly to and from a spot in the middle of the North Pacific and sleeps in a way that would kill any human?
Maybe instead we can listen and learn from these animals about their masterful skills of survival.
A digital painting I made of an adult female and juvenile elephant seal underwater. I use these graphics to illustrate scientific concepts when I present my dissertation research. Below is a 3D model I created to model my study organism, a juvenile elephant seal.
Below is a short 3D animation I created in Powerpoint showing how this 3D model can be used to demonstrate complex 3D animal behaviors.