Kenneth Lee Marten

1978 Laureate, Environment
United States, 1946-2010

Project Goal

Save the Abyssinian wolf in Ethiopia by developing a conservation programme

Location: Ethiopia

Raising Awareness

Visiting the Simèn Mountains of Ethiopia in 1975 for a preliminary survey, Kenneth Marten found that the wolf was being hunted by the herders of the livestock on which it preys, and in several areas, it faced imminent extinction. Marten proposed discovering the extent of the threat and seeing whether the herders could be persuaded to stop the extermination. In those areas where wolves were still relatively numerous, he proposed studying the factors that limit their population: food supply, habitat preference, mortality and social behaviour.

At the same time, he wanted to combine conservation with his scientific endeavours. His aim was to collaborate with officials of the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Organisation to draw up and implement a recovery plan for the wolves bringing together all the disciplines and resources required. Most important, the research team would train Ethiopians to operate the programme so that they could continue to run it after the group departed. This ambitious programme made Marten one of the first laureates of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

Drought and Famine

However, Marten’s plans were never to be put into practice. In mid-1977, Somalia invaded Ethiopia. For years the country was ravaged by drought and famine compounded by sporadic warfare. The Selection Committee knew of the difficulties but awarded the prize anyway, Marten recalls with astonishment. "At that time I said I would use the prize for a similar, alternative science and conservation project on African wild dogs on the Serengeti Plains — which is exactly what I did."

This research and conservation study carried out between 1977 and 1980 formed the basis of his doctoral thesis. "The Rolex Award was one of the most important events in my life," says Marten. "At a time when I was having extreme difficulty obtaining funding for my field study, Rolex came through. The award enabled me to go ahead with my field study of African wild dogs and finish my Ph.D. Since then I have led a very productive professional life. There is no question that Rolex played a critical part at a critical time."

It was a year spent as a visiting research scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service from 1982 to 1983 that broadened Marten’s interest to another threatened mammal. He spent much of his time counting dead dolphins that had been caught in the nets of tuna fishing boats. He decided that his vocation was the study and protection of these marine animals.

Dolphin Intelligence

He spent the next seven years studying dolphin behaviour and bioacoustics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, as director of the Marine Acoustics Services Laboratory. In 1990, Marten was appointed director of research for Project Delphis. This programme, devoted to dolphin conservation and research into their cognitive abilities, is operated in Hawaii by Earthtrust, an international research and educational organisation dedicated to the preservation of wildlife and the natural environment.

Since receiving his Rolex Award, Marten has kept in touch with his fellow Laureate, Francine Patterson, who has dedicated her professional life to studying the learning abilities of gorillas. Marten and Patterson hope to develop a "comparative psychology", using the animals’ intelligence to promote their conservation.

Marten used tests similar to those carried out on apes to test self-awareness in dolphins: marking their heads and checking to see whether they behaved in front of a mirror as if they were inspecting themselves or another animal. In 1992 and 1993 he worked with a touchscreen manufacturer to allow dolphins to manipulate a computer to perform tasks such as turning lights on and off or depositing toys in the tank, as well as to make choices in experiments devised to explore their mental abilities and preferences.

"Since dolphins cannot interact with computers using traditional means, we have searched for alternate methods which will allow them to interact," Marten explains. These include development of a special underwater touch screen which the dolphins can control with their rostrum (noses).

Underwater Toys

"A physicist would marvel at some of the play behaviour observed in young dolphins at the Project Delphis laboratory," observes Marten. "They blow underwater bubble rings out of their blowhole, about the thickness of a straw and several feet in diameter. The rings don’t rise to the surface! The babies play with these underwater toys by moving them around with their rostrum, or biting them. They even bounce the rings off the wall, and elongate them with a flick of their dorsal fins into 15 foot (4 metre) corkscrews."

Marten’s research has been featured in several television programmes broadcast in the United States, Europe and Japan, and public awareness plays a large part in the programme. "The hope is that new insights into dolphin intelligence will motivate humans to protect these amazing mammals in their natural ocean habitats throughout the world," says Marten. "Rolex has played a pivotal part in my career. Because of the Award, and because of the work I did with Rolex money, I have been able to progress and carry out very important work in terms of trying to save endangered animals on the planet."

Kenneth Lee Marten died in 2010.

Other 1978 Laureates