To avoid enemy crafts, naval submarines will often run silently, shutting down nonessential functions and cutting crew chatter. Now, an international team of researchers has found that Blainsville’s beaked whales also go into stealth mode to avoid being eaten by their mortal enemies, orcas.
While they normally click, buzz, and whistle to one another in the deep, the aquatic mammals stop all gab when they enter waters shallower than about 550 feet, presumably because killer whales typically hunt in shallow water. This is surprising considering that the beaked whales spend only 40 percent of their lives in the deeper waters—scientists expected that the animals would need frequent communication to maintain social ties.
Makes you wonder: How often do the whales leave the deep to get away from all the gossiping?
[Read more at BBC.]
All the single ladies, all the single ladies…
Whales catch earworms, too, show scientists from the University of Queensland in Australia in a new study. Each breeding season, males start out singing a new tune, which might incorporate bits of golden oldies or be entirely fresh. These new songs are then passed from whale to whale for 4,000 miles, usually starting from the western edge of the Pacific near Australia, a veritable humpback metropolis, to French Polynesia in the east, a comparative hinterland: a possible cetacean case of cultural trends starting in the big city and propagating to the country. Another hypothesis from the Hairpin:
What if Michael Jackson was reincarnated as a whale and is now living off the coast of eastern Australia?
It’s not so surprising that the violent destruction of a $1.5 million boat would lead to an argument. But you would expect the argument to be between the owners of the boat and the vessel that rammed it.
Instead, members of the activist group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the group at the center of the Animal Planet TV show Whale Wars, are arguing amongst themselves and are making their he said/he said argument public business.
The group’s expensive and high-tech speedboat, called the Ady Gil, was damaged in a collision with a Japanese whaling ship in early January. The boat, worth $1.5 million, was used to chase down and harass whaling ships. After the crash, the Sea Shepherd crew tried to tow the boat with another vessel for over 36 hours, failing twice, before the salvage effort was given up and the boat was scuttled (deliberately sunk).
After the crash the Ady Gil’s skipper, Pete Bethune, boarded the Japanese ship to confront the captain, but the whalers detained him and Bethune ended up in Japanese court, where he was found guilty of trespassing and assault. In the midst of the legal maneuvering Sea Shepherd’s founder, Paul Watson, fired Bethune, but later said it was a tactical move to get Bethune a reduced sentence. (He was finally given a two-year suspended sentence, and was deported from Japan.)
Last week the argument intensified when a statement by Bethune to Japanese authorities came to light, claiming that Watson had ordered him to board the Japanese ship; there are reports that information has allowed the Japanese authorities to issue a warrant for Watson’s arrest. The reaction to Bethune’s statement was swift and fierce. In an email to Bethune, Watson denied that he had ordered Bethune to board the ship, relieved him of his post at Sea Shepherd, and even blamed Bethune for the destruction of the ship:
The list of wacky science discoveries from the Ig Nobel awards announced last night includes teams who made strides in vital fields like bat fellatio and curing diseases via roller coaster rides.
The awards are given out every year for discoveries that made us both laugh and think. Here’s a full list of the winning teams and projects:
“We live in the south of New Zealand in a very hilly city (we have the steepest street in the world!), and intermittent icy conditions in winter can create major havoc,” she said.
Management: A mathematical study by researchers in Italy found that in some business situations, it is better to promote randomly than the choose the most qualified candidates.
Engineering: A team based in the UK and Mexico found the perfect way to collect whale snot–send a remote controlled helicopter in to do it for you. The team members explained the technique to ABC News:
“The technique involves flying a remote-controlled helicopter above a whale as it surfaces and catching the whale blow in petri dishes attached to the underside of the helicopter,” they said in a statement.
Required for biopsying a gray whale: one speed boat, one crossbow, and one Russian prime minister. Vladimir Putin recently spent some quality time in Olga Bay, helping the V.I. Il’ichev Pacific Oceanological Institute sort out the family tree for a group of gray whales.
As Nature’s blog The Great Beyond explains, the Institute hopes to determine if the whales descended from a Californian or extinct Korean whale population, and the crossbow holds a specially-designed arrow for taking a skin sample. The bold Russian prime minister, known for his shirtless fishing, fire fighting, and bear tracking, told the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS that science can be tricky but exciting:
“I had the sporting feeling, I missed the target thrice, but hit it the fourth time.”
From the heroic Flipper to the charismatic Willy, dolphins and whales have made some splashy supporting actors. And since they often seem almost as smart and interesting as their human costars, perhaps it’s not surprising that a new movement is afoot to grant these animals “human rights.”
Research on everything from whale communication to “trans-species psychology” hints that the glowing portrayals of these fictional animal friends have some basis in reality. If cetaceans—marine mammals including whales, dolphins, and porpoises—can act like humans, even using tools and recognizing themselves in a mirror, shouldn’t they have the same basic rights as people?
That’s what attendees of a meeting organized by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) said yesterday, where a multidisciplinary panel agreed on a “Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins.” Read More
The fight against global warming has a brand new weapon: whale poop.
Scientists from the Australian Antarctic Division have found that whale poop contains huge amounts of iron and when it is released into the waters, the iron-rich feces become food for phytoplankton. Phytoplankton absorbs carbon dioxide from the air, the algae is in turn eaten by Antarctic krill, and baleen whales eat the krill. Through this neat cycle, globe-warming CO2 is kept sequestered in the ocean.
Scientists have long known that iron is necessary to sustain phytoplankton growth in the oceans, which is why one geoengineering scheme calls for adding soluble iron to ocean waters to encourage the growth of carbon-trapping algae blooms. While environmentalists have fretted over the possible consequences of meddling with ocean chemistry that way, this new study on whale poop suggests an all-natural way to get the same carbon-trapping effect: Increase the number of whales in the ocean.
If ever a species got the disgusting name it deserved, bone-eating worms would be the one. Robert Vrijenhoek’s team discovered them five years ago eating the bones of a dead gray whale off California, and since then they’ve shown up in whalebones around the world. The worms don’t have mouths or anuses—instead, they rely on their bacteria to handle nutrient uptake and waste disposal. And according to a new study by Vrijenhoek in BMC Biology, there’s more to these strange sea-dwelling scavengers: They might have been around since before whales even existed, and are probably more numerous than we thought.
Back in 2004, Vrijenhoek’s first analysis of the bone-eating worms, which carry the scientific name Osedax, found five different species. However, according to the genetic analysis he carried out in the new study, there could be as many as 17 distinct evolutionary lineages.
Osedax is old, too. Using a molecular clock taken from shallow-water invertebrates, the researchers calculated that the bone worms could have split off from their nearest relatives 45 million years ago, about the time whales arose (and became meals for Osedax upon dying and sinking to the bottom). But if Vrijenhoek used a different clock, one designed for deep-sea worms, he found that the bone-eaters could date back 20 million years further, to a time before whales even existed.
Scientists will have to look at fossils of ancient whales and their predecessors to figure out the history of bone-eating worms. But they already know these oddball sea creatures have a taste for more than whales. Vrijenhoek told Wired.com that he has offered cow, sea lion, and pig bones to Osedax, and the worms like them just fine.
Discoblog: New “Worm Charming” Champion Sets World Record
Discoblog: Barry the Giant Sea Worm: Fantasy Turns Real in the U.K.
Discoblog: Let Them Eat Dirt! It Contains Essential Worms
DISCOVER: Weird Worms Feast on Whale Bones
To see if a whale’s libido is going full-throttle, grab a pair of nylons and head to the ocean, reports the New Scientist:
For the first time, testosterone and progesterone—two key hormones that signal whether whales are pregnant, lactating or in the mood to mate—have been extracted from whales’ lung mucus, captured in nylon stockings dangled from a pole over their blowholes as they surface to breathe.
This method could allow scientists to study whales without having to slaughter them, and could be used to simply give them a pregnancy test to try to learn why some species aren’t breeding, say the authors of the study.
Discoblog: Japanese Whaling Redux: American Scientists Say Slaughter Was Unnecessary
Discoblog: Is Bleaching Next? Whales Look at Teeth When Picking Mates
Discoblog: Detectors Catch Whales Swimming Near New York City
Image: flickr / percita
Humans aren’t the only species that use pearly whites to judge the fitness of a mate: Apparently teeth are also important to a certain species of whales. The beaked whales have earned the reputation as the most bizarre whales in the ocean, spending the majority of their lives foraging for food and living in seclusion. For years, scientists have wondered why these strange whales have tusks, especially since it hinders their bite.
It turns out these seeming-unnecessary teeth are important for mating—a discovery that marks the first time scientists have found a secondary sexual characteristic (like antlers) that shaped evolution in a marine mammal.