Emory Report
April 9, 2007
Volume 59, Number 26

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April 9, 2007
The beauty of brains

by kim urquhart

Dolphins have the largest brain of any animal on the planet, and in encephalization level, second only to humans. But when in 2001 Lori Marino was able to show that bottlenose dolphins have the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror, it set off an international media frenzy.

Until then, only humans and great apes had shown convincing evidence of mirror self-recognition. In fact, as a biopsychology graduate student Marino worked with the primatologist who was the first to show that primates can recognize themselves in mirrors.

Marino and colleague Diana Reiss’ groundbreaking study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was the first time a non-primate passed the mirror test of self-recognition. This proved that dolphins are not only highly intelligent but are self-aware, Marino says.

Marino, a senior lecturer in neuroscience and behavioral biology and adjunct faculty in the department of psychology, is one of only a handful of experts on dolphin intelligence. The marine mammal scientist has been studying dolphins and whales for 15 years.

“I’m generally interested in animal intelligence and how that evolves, but specifically I’ve been studying cetaceans — dolphins and whales — as a way to look at complex intelligence that evolved in a different way than ours did,” she says, explaining that the brains of cetaceans “have been put together in a different way than our brains and other primate brains. What you’re studying with dolphins and whales is an alternative to human intelligence. And that to me is absolutely fascinating.”

Since childhood, Marino’s “six-million-dollar question” has been: “What is it like to be another species?” She delves into this query by researching behavioral evolution and other areas by studying the brains harvested from dolphins that have died of natural causes.

Her research takes place in Emory’s laboratories and in the extensive collection at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, where her role as research associate allows her access to hundreds of fossils — skulls of dolphins and whales that provide a glimpse 50 million years into the past. As a faculty affiliate of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Marino has compared cetaceans and primates to study areas such as cognitive development and the relationship between behavioral ecology, life history and encephalization.

Marino is both a researcher and an activist. “Animal welfare has been a long-standing interest and passion of mine,” she says. “I’ve gotten more and more involved in various projects and efforts over the past couple of years, and a lot of what I do now in addition to my research is related in some way to animal welfare.”

As an undergraduate at New York University, Marino discovered her aversion to invasive research while performing fatal psychobiology experiments on rats. “I found the research to be very interesting, but it bothered me from an ethical point of view,” she says. “I decided that I wanted to continue to study the biological basis of behavior, but not in a way where I’d have to harm any animals to do it.”

It’s a decision she has stood behind throughout her career. “You can still make contributions to neurosciences without doing invasive laboratory work,” she says. “I want students to know they can be in the neurosciences and not necessarily have to do invasive work with animals.”

Marino’s new course on animal welfare debuted this spring at Emory. The class explores the ethical issues that arise when humans interact with other animals, focusing on the topics most relevant to students in the neurosciences and the life sciences in general. “What I want my students to get out of this is an appreciation for how complex these issues are, to be sensitized to how we use other animals and the impact on the animals as well as ourselves. I want them to question, to not take for granted the things that we do, but to actually think about the ramifications and the alternatives, and be sensitive to those things,” Marino says.

Her “pet project” at Emory is to develop a center for animal welfare and ethics. Emory is on the leading edge of neuroscience research — Marino says NBB is the fastest growing undergraduate neuro-program in the country — and is also a leader in ethics. She says such a center could combine and expand those strengths. She envisions the interdisciplinary center as a way to “provide students with an education that allows them to think about the ethics of animal research and other ways we use animals.”

Marino’s interest in animal welfare has inspired her to take action to stop the exploitation of dolphins and whales in several ways. “It’s impossible to work with these animals and not feel responsible for them in some way,” Marino says.

With an international coalition of scientists, Marino formed the Act for Dolphins campaign to end the brutal slaughter of thousands of wild dolphins in Japan. She also is working with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and the Humane Society of the United States on a campaign against dolphin-assisted therapy that will launch this fall. Two papers published in peer-reviewed literature with fellow Emory faculty member Scott Lilienfeld are part of Marino’s efforts to inform the public that dolphin-assisted therapy programs — an increasingly popular choice of treatment for illness or developmental disabilities in which participants swim or interact with live captive dolphins — are not scientifically valid and even potentially dangerous. “It’s an industry that really needs to be stopped,” she says.

Her hope? “I’d like to see people leave dolphins alone, to not have such an impact on them, to not exploit them, to just allow them to live their lives. Unfortunately, things are moving in the opposite direction,” she says. Their friendly appearance and seemingly playful attitude make dolphins popular in human culture. But there is more to dolphins than brains and beauty. “When people see dolphins in captivity they think that they’re seeing the most interesting thing that dolphins do. But really what they do in the wild is so much more interesting and complex and sophisticated than what they do in captivity,” Marino notes.

Yet many of the dolphins in captivity, particularly those outside of the U.S., have been captured from the wild. “The impact of those captures and those drives on wild populations is really not known, and there are several species on the brink of extinction,” she says.

Marino’s crusade to save animals extends into her community. Every Saturday, Marino volunteers with Atlanta Pet Rescue. “Working at the shelter for the past two-and-a-half years has again opened my eyes to some of the things that animals experience,” says Marino, who has adopted two cats herself. “And working with the dolphins and realizing what they are like has also been eye-opening. I feel like I should do what I can to help. And, quite frankly, I wish more scientists would.”