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Explorer of the Week: Eric Patterson

Biologist Eric Patterson always knew he wanted a career that allowed him to work with animals. Today, this fascination brings him everywhere from the National Aquarium in Baltimore to Australia’s Shark Bay. Patterson studies dolphin behavior—most recently, their use of sponge tools. And while his subjects share many similar traits to humans, they always find...

Biologist Eric Patterson always knew he wanted a career that allowed him to work with animals. Today, this fascination brings him everywhere from the National Aquarium in Baltimore to Australia’s Shark Bay. Patterson studies dolphin behavior—most recently, their use of sponge tools. And while his subjects share many similar traits to humans, they always find new ways to surprise him in the field.

What project are you working on now?

My latest project looks at lifelong learning in sponge-tool-using dolphins. We are finding that dolphins—like many animals, including humans—continuously improve their performance with experience until they reach a peak in ability midlife, right when they are most likely to be having calves. This is remarkably similar to what in the human literature is usually called developing expertise. After this, dolphins seem to decline in their tool use ability to some extent, which likely has to do with the general process of aging. I am also currently looking at the different types of sponge tools dolphins use, and how or if dolphins are selective when picking their tools.

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve discovered in your work or in the field?

The thing about studying dolphins, and marine animals in general, is that they somehow always surprise you because the world they live in is so completely different than yours. I would have to say the most surprising thing I have seen while in the field is a dolphin literally robbing a shag (a type of bird also called a cormorant). We were trying to collect data on a dolphin named Sequel, but she was constantly trying to ride the bow wave our boat creates. We finally decided to give her a ride and as soon as we started driving we noticed a shag up ahead that had just caught a fish. We looked down and Sequel was gone. All of a sudden the shag shot out of the water and dropped its fish. Guess who was there to grab it? Sequel! She did this three times in a row within about ten minutes, going from shag to shag, poking them from underwater to startle them and cause them to drop their fish. It’s a genius way to get a free meal!

Have you ever been lost? How’d you get found?

I most certainly have been lost, both physically and mentally, but luckily my GPS helps with one of these. In undergrad I actually started out as an aerospace engineer and while I was doing fine in all my courses, I just felt unsatisfied. Engineering was certain to be more lucrative than many other careers and I always performed well in math and science, so it made sense, but something was missing. After a long, hard semester of thinking it over and talking with my parents and several professors/professionals in other fields, I finally realized I had to switch. I needed a career involving nature and animals, so biology it was!

If you could trade places with one explorer at National Geographic, who would it be and why?

To be honest I feel extremely lucky that I can say I would not want to trade places with anyone. However, the work of several explorers, including Jane Goodall‘s, Bernd Würsig‘s, and Joyce Poole‘s, has always been inspirational, and if I could accomplish only half of what they have in their incredible lives I would be forever grateful.

Where is your favorite place that you’ve traveled?

I have been very lucky to have traveled much of the world, but one place in particular that stands out is the island of Monuriki, Fiji. This is the island where Castaway was filmed and my brother and I were lucky enough to get to take a sailboat there while we were in Fiji. The island is uninhabited and we had to first go to the nearby village and have a traditional Kava ceremony in order to gain permission to visit the island. Ever since reading the book The Cay as a kid, I have been obsessed with small, uncivilized islands for some reason and this tops them all. The beauty is indescribable and there is just something about being totally isolated on a tiny island that makes you feel so insignificant, which somehow, at the same time, gives you complete peace.

What can humans learn from the animals you study?

Despite our common ancestor being separated by millions of years, bottlenose dolphins and humans share many similar traits. Bottlenose dolphins live in what we call a fission-fusion society, the same type of society that humans and a few other animals live in. Group membership is constantly changing in that who you are hanging out with now will change, but could change back later in the day, month, year, or decade. So bottlenose dolphins don’t actually live in pods as one might think. There are many parallels between dolphin and human cognitive abilities as well; both of us have very large brains for our body size, which likely relates to similar underlying ecological and social contexts both species experienced during their evolutionary histories. As such, we can learn a great deal about the pressures that may have led to modern-day humans by examining the similarities we have with bottlenose dolphins, among other toothed whales. How dolphins maintain social relationships, how they adapt to environments all over the world, how they care for their young, and how they communicate all have implications for human evolution.

If dolphins could speak, what do you think they’d tell us?

Fish! That would be the first thing, but then I think they would tell us we look very weird and we make too much noise.

Photograph by Dominik Noll
Photograph by Dominik Noll

Have you ever gotten attached to a certain dolphin?

I get attached to my pets, but not to individual wild animals. As a biologist, you try to separate your emotions from the world you study so you can be objective and scientific. This may seem a little harsh, but in reality we have to step back and look at things as a whole, as a process, as a system not as individuals, in order to truly understand and appreciate all aspects of dolphins’ lives. That is not to say that I am not particularly fond of some dolphins more than others, as I do have a few favorites that are just simply more interesting to watch, but I try not to get emotionally attached.

What do you think National Geographic explorers will be exploring in 100 years?

The way things are going, who knows, but I’ll take a wild guess. In terms of here on Earth, the one place we still know very little about is the ocean and as technologies improve I think future explorers will focus heavily on improving our understanding of marine environments. I also think that we as humans are having an unprecedented impact on our planet and that there will be an immense interest in examining this impact, determining how we can minimize our negative influences, and live in a more sustainable way. Beyond Earth, I think in 100 years we will have greatly improved our knowledge of other planets and hopefully at least one explorer will, in fact, explore another planet!

If you were to meet your eight-year-old self, what would you say?

Think about what you like to do for fun and figure out how to make that your job. Oh, and don’t take life too seriously. After all, it’s just life.

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