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NATURE: Ocean Giants: Deep Thinkers

A bottlenose dolphin, one of the largest-brained animals on the planet.
Courtesy of © David Fleetham/Naturepl
A bottlenose dolphin, one of the largest-brained animals on the planet.

Airs Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

Whales and dolphins remain a constant source of fascination. But how much do we really know about them? Whales and dolphins, known as cetaceans, may appear to be totally alien to us — but with their mental ability, group communication and the recent discovery that dolphins have individual names, they are closer to us than we ever imagined. This three-part series ("Giant Lives," "Deep Thinkers" and "Voices Of The Sea") provides new insights into the lives of whales and dolphins in a visually powerful, engaging and entertaining format. Two of the world’s top underwater cameramen—Doug Allan (“Planet Earth’s” polar specialist) and Didier Noirot (Cousteau’s front-line cameraman)—film breathtaking encounters. Teams of intrepid scientists equipped with the latest technology are making extraordinary breakthroughs in their understanding of these intelligent life forms — breakthroughs that may safeguard their survival.

"Deep Thinkers" repeats at 11 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016 - The second part explores the cognitive and emotional lives of dolphins and whales, which have the largest brains of any animal. Like us, cetaceans have special brain cells called spindle cells that are associated with communication, emotion, and heightened social sensitivity. These cells were once thought to be unique to humans, yet research is showing that whales and dolphins have may have three times more spindle cells than we do, leading scientists to believe that their mental abilities and emotional awareness could be far greater than we imagined.

At Baltimore Aquarium, the cognitive abilities of bottlenose dolphins have been investigated for over 25 years in one of the world’s leading studies into what dolphins might think about themselves and the world around them. Observing how they react to seeing themselves in a mirror reveals they do grasp that they are looking at an image of themselves and experience self-awareness, a sophisticated cognitive skill only a very few animals besides ourselves possess.

In the Bahamas, Allan and Noirot dive with a group of dolphins that displays how clicks, whistles, and highly synchronized movements and vocalizations can establish personal identity as well as gang behavior. It’s a crash course in dolphin manners and communication that the cameramen find fascinating to observe.

Equally fascinating is an experiment Allan is able to capture on film involving an underwater machine that blows bubble-rings, something the local bottlenose dolphins off the Caribbean island of Roatán have never seen before. Curiosity leads to temptation, at which point one youngster can no longer control her urge to explore. After having tested the silvery rings not just with her eyes, but with her sonar, she braves a tactile experience and, delighted, leads the others in hours of inventive play.

Dolphins may be curious and playful, but they can also be devious and crafty. One group in Australia allows stingrays to locate a tasty octopus in long sea grass and then sneaks in to snatch the meal, outsmarting the stingrays. Another group a few hundred miles to their north employs hydroplaning, skimming across the surface of a thin sheet of water, to catch fish they could otherwise never reach, outsmarting the fish.

But perhaps the most amazing example of prey manipulation and cooperative hunting is demonstrated by humpbacks in Alaskan waters, as they gather to feed on huge shoals of herring. A pod of humpbacks herds the herring from the depths using on a highly coordinated plan of attack in which each whale has a crucial role to play. Their spectacular hunting technique brings spectacular results. By hunting together, each whale can catch up to half a ton of herring a day.

Join PBS NATURE, as it dives into the world of whales and dolphins, and reveals the secrets of their intimate lives like never before.

The first episode, "Giant Lives," repeats at 11 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. The final episode, "Voices Of The Sea" repeats Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016 at 11 p.m.

Past episodes of NATURE are available for online viewing. NATURE is on Facebook, Tumblr and you can follow @PBSNature on Twitter.

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