You may recognize this funny looking marine mammal as the large, talking cartoon whale from Will Ferrell’s “Elf” but the narwhal (or “corpse whale” in Old Norse) actually is a very real toothed whale that lives in cold, Arctic waters.
Only male narwhals have the characteristic long tusk, which is actually a super long tooth that can grow up to 10 feet. It is unknown exactly what purpose this tooth serves but scientists do know that it is not used for hunting.
Happy Friday! Time for a brief break from the oil spill. And what better reason than for a really freakin' cool prehistoric whale.
The great white shark is often considered one of the world’s greatest predators. At between 15-20 feet long it is no slouch, but it pales in comparison to the Leviathan melville, a recently discovered predatory whale that lived 13 million years ago.
Named after the mythical sea monster Leviathan and Moby Dick author Herman Melville, the Leviathan melvillei was probably close to 60 feet long. According to the fossils found in a Peruvian desert, which was once part of a great ocean, the teeth of the beast were over a foot long and almost half a foot wide.
Bats and toothed whales share the ability to squeak and click their way to prey. And now two new studies in this week’s journal Current Biology reveal that their echolocation, which evolved independently in the two groups, has a similar underlying molecular mechanism.
There are plenty of examples of evolutionary convergence, such as the tusks of elephants and walruses, or the bioluminescence of fireflies and jellyfish.
But it’s highly unusual for convergence to occur at the molecular level. Turns out the inner ear hair cells of both the bottlenose dolphin (a toothed whale) and 10 species of bats contain a protein called prestin, which plays an important role in echolocation.
But not all echolocaters are created equal. Because the speed of sound in water is five times that in air, dolphins can use echolocation for more than 100 meters. Bats can only do so for a few meters.
(Hat tip to Monterey Bay’s Sea Notes blog for this story.)