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Saturday June 15th, 2024

Dolphin Detail

Kids spied them first, sending shrieks aloft. Grownups grabbed their pre-lunch Proseccos and beat it down steps to join the admiring chorus. From the low bow deck of our rented sail yacht motoring (no wind) off Lanka’s south coast, we watched in noisy glee as the dolphins practised their ‘bow-riding’— surfing the wave pushed ahead and off to the side by the boat.

It looked a ton of fun and quite competitive among maybe a couple dozen bottlenoses. The big prize is to seize and hold position at wave’s apex, hurtling straight forward for a chill-and-thrill moment before some jostle or watery flux pushes left or right, forcing fall-off down the backward-flowing wake, followed by effortful struggle to maintain and improve placement among wriggling peers.

Bottlenoses frolic all around Sri Lanka, loving the continental shelf stretching out from beach to deep ocean slope. Organic nutrients flowing seaside from Lankan streams and swept in on favourable currents support a marine food chain second to none. Bottlenoses hold their breath and dive right down to the shelf floor when hungry enough for the buffet. In depths too murky for eyesight, they find their fishy prey through echolocation, akin to what bats do in the air.

Sound carries fast and far in water, with bottlenoses taking full advantage. From nasal cavities, they send rapid bursts of high-frequency clicks through a fluid, fatty ‘melon’ in their foreheads, which acts like a lens, focusing the sound into a directed beam. Echoes reverberate back from underwater features and objects, including fish. Echoed sound flows in through their lower jaws, also filled with fatty fluid, to their inner ears and thence to their brains, where wiring converts information into imagery comparable to sonogram. They see their surroundings with sound, using much the same brain matter devoted to vision in terrestrial animals. They may even use echoed clicks from their hunting partners to sharpen their ‘sight.’ They can pick out a ping-pong ball at 100 meters, roughly equal to human eyesight (verified by experiment on the lane with my son, Nate). With echolocation, bottlenoses can detect bones, muscle and organs, even fetuses, inside other creatures.

Their clicks rise in frequency as they close on their quarry, facilitating pinpoint accuracy as they strike.

Bottlenoses emerged 2-5 million years ago (mya). They fall into two recognized species: ‘common’ and ‘Indo-Pacific,’ the former inclined toward deep sea, the latter toward shore. Other distinct species may exist as well, with breaks between shore and deep sea populations prevailing widely. They belong to the Cetacean (whales and dolphins) sub-order, which originated some 50 mya in Sri Lanka’s general neighbourhood, diverging from even-toed ungulates (mammals with hooves), an order comprising present-day pigs, camels, sheep, cattle, giraffe and deer. Cetaceans claim hippos as their closest living relative. Bottlenoses fall into the odontocete branch (echolocating cetaceans with teeth), as opposed to mysticetes (filter-feeding cetaceans with baleen instead of teeth).

Tell-tale early fossils lie in the high Himalaya, lifted there as India slammed into Asia, beginning also around 50 mya and continuing since then. The earliest known cetacean, Pakicetus, was a smallish deer-like creature spending some of its time in freshwater streams that flooded seasonally. Heavy bone marrow provided ballast for ensuing forms of non-swimming freshwater waders and bottom-walkers.

By and by, of course, cetaceans learned to swim, spending more and more time chasing fish while returning to land for sleep, mating, birthing and nursing, like today’s seals and walrus. They moved downstream to deeper waters, bringing forth species adapted to diverse riverine habitats as the rising Himalaya created variegated terrain. As early as 49 mya, Ambulocetus, a slow-swimming ambush hunter sized like a sea lion, spilled into shallow seas while continuing to move ably on land, like crocodiles.

At 45 mya, Remingtonocetus improved sharply on previously-developing underwater hearing as it prowled muddy bays disfavoring eyesight. At 40 mya, some cetaceans renounced land entirely and began dispersing through global seas. Their forelimbs became flippers while their hind legs shrank into vestiges. Those who clung to land or fresh water disappeared. At around 35 mya, odontocetes split from mysticetes, beginning their deep-dive journey into echolocation. They eventually came to compete in apex predatorship with sharks dominant since when the dinosaur extinction (65 mya) swept marine reptiles into oblivion. Sometime along the way, today’s echolocating river dolphins migrated back into fresh water from the sea.

Numerous anecdotes of bottlenose intelligence require no recital here. Their brain-to-body ratio, an indicator of high intelligence, ranks among the top in the animal kingdom. Their cortical neurons may outnumber those of chimps and perhaps even rival humans. Even more fascinating is emergent science on how and why they got so brainy. As with other super-smart mammals, their story turns on social complexity, cooperativity and sensitivity. Young bottlenoses bond with and learn richly from an array of cooperating ‘aunties’ who share parental tasks, assisting actual mothers. This ‘alloparenting’ (caregiving by others than mothers) breeds emotional sensitivity among juveniles across a range of relationships, requiring and rewarding neuronal proliferation.

Meanwhile among aunties, cultivating trust relationships requires vast neuronal investment in capacities like memory, game theory, skill evaluation, situational assessment and social sanctioning. In a rare feature, females commonly live long past their reproductive years. Their long-life wisdom confers auntie benefits on juveniles and pods. That bottlenose pods fluctuate on a fission/fusion spectrum—separating and joining as circumstances vary—only intensifies pressure toward complex social judgement. Bottlenoses analyze not only how individual fellows may behave but also how different groupings may perform. Who will hunt and babysit well together under these particular conditions? Pod formation revolves largely though not exclusively around kinship. Pods coalesce around charismatic ‘socialites,’ who nurture links with other pods.

Cooperative hunting merits recognition as a bottlenose trademark. Coordinate fishing tactics include herding prey into tight balls, roundups through crescent formations, trapping against natural barriers and attack from multiple sides. In Florida, ‘driver’ bottlenoses terrify prey toward multi-dolphin ‘barriers.’ Remarkably enough, certain experts play ‘driver’ time and time again, excluding other candidates. To our knowledge, no other marine hunters anoint ‘designated drivers’ this way. Bottlenoses often assist and profit from human fishing. In Brazil they drive mullet shoals toward fishermen holding nets and eat fish that break formation.

Bottlenoses analyze not only how individual fellows may behave but also how different groupings may perform

Bottlenoses count among the few species who pass the ‘Mirror Self-Recognition’ (MSR) test. In a mirror, terrestrial mammals like chimps and orangutans can see and touch spots placed on body parts they cannot normally see (e.g. foreheads), convincingly demonstrating awareness that they are viewing their own images. Bottlenoses cannot touch spots with their flippers but they do manifest intense fascination with their mirror images. They watch themselves open their mouths, stick their tongues out, twirl, roll, blow bubbles and look at body parts. They inspect their markings closely. MSR capacity appears in species with large complex brains, high sociality and emotional empathy. Bottlenoses pass the mirror test as early as five months of age, while humans do so only at about 16 months. While this does not mean they are smarter or more empathic than humans, it does indicate high marks. They frequently offer assistance and rescue toward their own kind and toward other animals, including humans.[UH1].

Bottlenoses wield an array of whistle noises to coordinate activity, exchange information and socialize. Some experts believe this communication to be quite complex. Each individual acquires a unique ‘signature whistle’ that works as a nametag, as a locator and possibly as a signal of emotional state. Pregnant females step up their whistling as birth approaches, a behaviour called ‘fetus whispering,’ imprinting her ‘voice’ into her offspring’s memory. Intensified whistling continues for a few weeks after the birth before tapering off.

The internet lit up five years ago when a Russian scientist, no dolphin expert, claimed that bottlenoses utilize outright language, based on his whistle recordings purporting to reveal phonemes, words and sentences. Captive bottlenoses grasp at least elementary syntax, understanding the difference between ‘bring the frisbee to the ball’ and ‘bring the ball to the frisbee.’ Scepticism is in order, however. Experts on bottlenose communication quickly challenged the Russian study’s methodology and assumptions. One emerging theory of human language evolution precludes any likelihood of dolphin acquisition. Language may have emerged to facilitate transmission of toolmaking technique across generations. Language and complex manipulation draw upon much the same human brain regions as each other. No toolmaking or manipulation? No language.

Reports indicate a high incidence of illegal bottlenose hunting in Lankan waters: enforcement appears inadequate. Bottlenose meat goes to human consumption and longline fishing bait. Thriving in warm and temperate seas the world over, bottlenoses stand in no danger of extinction. If we wish them better protection, we must entertain other reasons.

Reports indicate a high incidence of illegal bottlenose hunting in Lankan waters: enforcement appears inadequate

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Mark Hager lives with his family in Pelawatte. mark.hager@gmail.com

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Sri Lanka beats key IMF program targets for March 2024 amid rupee stability

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka has exceeded key quantitative targets set in an International Monetary Fund program for March 2024, based on preliminary data the Washington based agency said in a report.

The March data are not performance criteria on which reviews are conducted but are indicative targets which shows the progress of the program and are a stepping stone for a September review based on June data.

An indicative target for the primary balance (roughly overall deficit minus interest costs), was assessed at 316 billion rupees more than four times the 70 billion rupee target set in the program.

Primary balance can be a big surplus if the interest bill is high and capital expenditure is cut and is a type of crisis management tool after a central bank triggers a currency crisis by cutting rates with inflationary liquidity tools.

However, Sri Lanka’s Treasury has also kept a lid on most current spending. A state salary hike is however due after the currency collapse made life difficult for everyone.

Meanwhile more taxes have been collected from the people to finance the island’s bloated state.

A 750 billion rupees central government tax revenue floor has been exceeded to reach 837 billion rupees.

Central bank credit to government (outstanding stock) has been reduced to 2,691 billion rupees in March compared to a target of 2,800 billion rupees. In December the CB credit was calculated 2,742 billion rupees.

Net international reserves of the central bank were brought up to a negative 1,268 million US dollars exceeding the target of a negative 2,035 by almost 700 million dollars.

In order to collect foreign reserves, which is a type of appropriation of domestic savings of the people by the central bank (taking in deposits) and exporting it to the US and other countries to finance their deficits or by other agency debt in reserve currencies.

In order to collect such ‘deposits’ the central bank has to prevent them from being invested domestically.

It is achieved with deflationary policy through sell-downs of down its Treasuries holding to domestic banks or others, at a market rate, collecting interest from the government or repayments of re-finance credits, subject to any nominal changes in reserve money at a given exchange rate.

In 2024 the central bank allowed the exchange rate to appreciate, which can also reduce prices of traded goods boost real and nominal savings and make it easier to collect foreign reserves.

When domestic credit is weak it is easier to collect reserves. Reduced domestic credit and collection of reserves, including by private banks which then cannot be invested domestically, can push the external current account into surplus.

The central bank also met a 5 percent 12-month inflation target, with an achievement of 4.3 percent.

Sri Lanka’s economy grew 5.3 percent despite reserve collections, amid the stability provided by the central bank.

There were no central bank purchases of Treasuries from the primary market.

However the central bank injected overnight and term money to banks (not on a net basis) showing how easy it is for a rate-obsessed monetary authority to get around the requirement and create external instability again as soon as private credit recovered.

The central bank also allowed excess liquidity from dollar purchase to remain unsterilized for an extended period under its ad hoc pegging arrangement, getting a short term falls in rates, but triggering pressure on the rupee as a result in May and June.

It is not possible to collect reserves with a free floating exchange rate. (Colombo/June15/2024)

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Sri Lanka GDP grows 5.3-pct in first quarter of 2024 amid monetary stability

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product grew 5.3 percent in the first quarter of 2024 data from the state statistics office showed as the central bank continued to refrain from generating monetary instability.

Instead of printing money to cut rates under ‘flexible inflation targeting’ and printing money to boost growth by taking into account ‘potential output’ as permitted by its new monetary law, the central bank ran deflationary policy and also allowed the rupee to appreciate.

“The Sri Lanka economy experienced a more favorable economic condition[s] in the first quarter 2024, when compared to the first quarter in the year 2023,” the Department of Census and Statistics said.

“The high inflation had prevailed in the first quarter of year 2023, gradually reduced to a lower level by the first quarter of 2024 and this low inflation incentivized the economy by providing inputs at [a] much lower price.

The agriculture sector grew 1.1 percent in the first quarter of 2024, after also growing 1.6 percent last year.

Industry grew 11.8 percent in the first quarter, against a 24.3 percent last year.

The economy grew amid falling prices, the statistics office said in sharp contrast to the Anglophone macroeconomic claim that inflation is needed to boost growth, on which Sri Lanka has 5-7 inflation target has apparently been set.

Related Sri Lanka central bank pushing for high inflation target to boost growth

“Among ‘Industrial activities’, coinciding with the decline in input prices, the ‘Construction industry’ grew by 14.2 percent, parallel to this, the ‘Mining and quarrying’ industry too expanded by 18.3 percent during this quarter,” the Statistics Department said.

Sr Lanka’s services sector grew 2.6 percent, against a decline of 4.6 percent recorded last year.

The International Monetary Fund has also urged the central bank to give priority to stability.

Sri Lanka dropped the stability mandate in the earlier monetary law which was violated after the end of a civil war to push the country into serial currency crises especially after the International Monetary Fund gave technical assistance to calculate potential output.

Related Sri Lanka has a corrupted inflation targeting, output gap targeting not in line with monetary law: Wijewardena

Sri Lanka survived a 30-year civil war by giving priority to a stability mandate despite shortcomings in its operational framework but defaulted in peacetime amid activist monetary policy which denied monetary stability to the people. (Colombo/June12/2024)

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Sri Lanka’s NPP notes five-point crisis for economic growth sans details

Former JVP MP Sunil Handunneththi

ECONOMYNEXT — The leftist National People’s Power (NPP) has identified five crises that need resolving for Sri Lanka’s economy to progress, much of which emphasise a production economy targeting export growth though sparse on the detail on resource allocation.

NPP spokesman and former parliamentarian Sunil Handunneththi speaking at an event in Mulaitivu on Thursday June 13 said Sri Lanka is grappling with firstly, a collapse of the production economy, second, a budget deficit, third, a balance of payment crisis which has, fourthly, created a debt crisis, and finally, a resultant gap between haves and have-nots.

“We must first understand the crisis. We reocgnise five main crises that have the same impact irrespective of differences between the north and south.

“The first is the collapse of the production economy. We can see this historically. Agriculture that used to be some 30 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) has now fallen to 8 percent. Essential food is imported. We cannot produce the rice needed for the small population here. Things that can be made here are also imported.

“Second is the income crisis. For the people, their expenses are twice their income. The budget deficit is two or three-fold every day. Banks cannot give loans to businesses and industries because the government takes funds to address the budget deficit. The government takes most of the people’s savings for this,” he said.

The balance of payment crisis Sri Lanka is facing the third crisis, according to Handunneththi, which has triggered a debt crisis, in turn leading to a crisis of income disparity among the people.

“Third is the balance of payments crisis. Imports are two or three fold export income. The government has to take 11 to 12 billion US dollars in loans from foreign countries. When GDP is 80 billion US dollars, debt has gone over 100.”

“All this creates a massive gap between haves and have-nots. Without finding solutions to these crisis, there is no point distributing goods,” he said.

Handunnethi’s remarks appear to be departure from the NPP’s anti-corruption rhetoric which had centred its economic development policy agenda primarily on fighting corruption.

‘Fighting corruption’ and ‘recovering stolen assets’ have been popular slogans since the Aragalaya protests in Sri Lanka and the NPP has made it its central theme in its bid for power. The leftist outfit had also adopted a position that’s cautiously critical of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the reforms the international lender has prescribed for Sri Lanka in exchange for a 2.9 billion-dollar bailout.

However, NPP leadership had recently acknowledged the need to continue the IMF programme since the agreement has already been signed.

The Marxist-Leninist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, which controls the NPP, though it was never in government barring a brief stint in an Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led coalition in the early 2000s, has been instrumental in driving popular support against privatisation.

Three key policy pillars articulated by the JVP from 2001-2004 and embraced by mainstream politician Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration in 2005 onward have been highlighted by experts.

From 2005, Sri Lanka halted privatisation, started recruiting tens of thousands of unemployed graduates into the public service every year with lifetime pensions, expanding an already bloated public sector and denying any benefit of a peace dividend to the country.

Sri Lanka also abandoned a price formula for fuel that had helped keep the rupee stable and inflation low from 2001 to 2003 even as global commodity prices went up from the ‘mother of all liquidity bubbles’ fired by the Federal Reserve from 2001.

From 2001 to 2003, state workers fell from 1.164 million to 1.043 million. By 2020, the public sector cadre has grown to 1.58 million with another batch of 53,000 unemployed graduates being paid tax money. (Colombo/Jun14/2024)

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