Don't you hate when you're at a party or restaurant, and even without music on, the room grows louder and louder and louder? Until you can barely hear the person standing right next to you? New research shows that sperm whales have evolved to circumvent this cocktail party conundrum.
According to the scientists, whose work will be presented at the Acoustical Society of America next week, the whales are polite conversationalists -- they make a specific effort to keep their calls from overlapping by changing the intervals between their echolocating clicks.
Perhaps humans can try this. It might go something like this:
"Would you - click - like an hors d'oeuvre - click?"
"Yes, one - click - mushroom puff - click - please."
And in other acoustic findings, researchers have discovered the first known instances of male humpback whales singing to one another, similar to songbirds. Whether the whale songs are macho seduction tunes -- like male birdsongs -- is still unclear.
What is clear is that there's a lot we don't know about what's being said and sung under the sea.
There’s no shortage of blame to go around when it comes to climate change. Individuals are responsible for poor consumer choices; we drive the wrong cars, use the wrong light bulbs, even wash our laundry on the wrong setting. Even the poor dairy cow shares the blame for having the nerve to burp methane emissions. But Bessie isn’t the only creature catching a bad rap. Sperm whales have been criticized for breathing. Yes, breathing. Apparently the carbon dioxide emitted from the roughly 210,000 sperm whales in the Southern Ocean is contributing to global warming, producing in the ballpark of 17 million tons of carbon a year. But new research suggests that we’re missing a very big factor in the calculation. It’s not just what the whales put out, but also what they take in.
Happy hump day, everyone. A15-year study of humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere is providing scientists with new insight into the slow giants' mating habits. Researchers analyzed DNA skin samples from more than 1,500 humpbacks in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. They found that the highest rate of "gene flow" occurred with whales breeding on either side of Africa, with one or two whales swimming between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans each year to mate. It was the first time a humpback had been recorded travelling between the two oceans. (Now that's what you call a long-distance relationship.) Another interesting conclusion from the study was that the small humpback population of less than 200 in the Indian Ocean, off the Arabian Peninsula, was distinct genetically and unlike other populations did not migrate and therefore was a "conservation priority."
Adding to the clatter about ocean noise comes the first study indicating that whales increase their calls in response to underwater noise. Scientists studying blue whales off the eastern Canadian coast found that the giants changed their calls in response to an underwater seismic survey. On days with seismic surveys, the whales made two-and-half-times more calls than on days without, probably because they have to "repeat information", as some of the communication is lost or degraded by the seismic activity. Sounds a lot like trying to have a conversation on your cell phone while riding the DC Metro. So what do the increased calls mean for the cetaceans? As one of the researchers said, "Our research doesn't say anything about whether this increase in call rate is negative for the animals, but of course it's not positive and it may be stressful."
New research out of Canada indicates that some killer whale populations prefer king (a.k.a. Chinook) salmon so much that the whales will actually die when salmon numbers fall. Here's the curious part: killer whales, as apex predators, have their pick of other fish or even other large marine mammals, but still some populations appear to be dependent upon king salmon as their primary food resource. Another study from Hawaii found that killer whales can identify king salmon even when they are swimming alongside Coho and Sockeye salmon. And even in the winter, when king salmon make up just 10 to 15 percent of the salmon in the water, killer whales use echolocation to pick out their favorite fish. That's some impressively picky eating. A recovering picky eater myself, I fully relate. And king salmon are undeniably delicious. Who can blame them? But suffering king salmon populations spell trouble for the orcas. The pollock industry catches enormous amounts of king salmon as bycatch. And due to the low populations, the 2008 king salmon fishing season was cancelled in Oregon and California, and again in 2009 in California. With king salmon lovers abound on land too, something's gotta give.
Here's your zen moment of the day for Whale Wednesday: take a deep breath, a cue from the remaining North Atlantic right whales, and slow it down. A new study indicates that larger areas of speed limits for ships around major ports could significantly help the survival of North Atlantic right whales, whose population numbers fewer than 400 individuals. The study notes that expanding seasonal speed-restriction zones around major East Coast ports by 10 nautical miles would significantly reduce the risk of collisions with ships, which are among the greatest threats to the whales. And not only would expanded speed limits help save these endangered whales, they would also help combat climate change. As Oceana wrote in a report from last year, Shipping Impacts on Climate, reducing the shipping fleet's speed is one significant way to cut fuel costs and reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, black carbon, nitrogen oxides, and nitrous oxide.
No matter where you are in the world, you can get in on whale watching action via the magic of the interwebs. Whale watching has gone digital, bringing cetacean sightings to all, even those in landlocked states. Documentary filmmaker David Anderson has mounted several cameras on his 50-foot catamaran, allowing anyone with internet access the chance to see whales and dolphins off the southern California coast. And for those who can’t afford to spend all day staring at a computer screen hoping to catch a glimpse of a flipper, Anderson updates his viewers via Twitter, sending out alerts prior to sightings. Check out his website for more info, including how to sign up to be an indoor whale watcher.
Orcas live and travel in pods, which are groups of ten to twenty animals – this is not new information. However, researchers in Russia recently spotted superpods, groups of up to 100 killer whales. These meetings last anywhere from a few hours to a half day and are characterized by common social behaviors – mating, flipper rubbing, synchronized swimming – but to a higher degree than typically observed. What do these social clubs mean and why do they matter? They may simply be another avenue to socialize. Since their large numbers may actually scare off prey, they don’t seem to be an effective way to hunt. Perhaps most importantly, they may be a chance for whales from different pods to meet up and check out potential mates. With calf mortality rates as high as 50 percent in the first six months, any research into understanding orca reproduction is critical in maintaining healthy populations.
In keeping with this week's theme, today is Whale Shark Wednesday, of course. I thought we'd take a day to step back and appreciate the biggest fish in the sea, the whale shark. Here are five things you might not know about the beautiful predators: 1. You could fit inside a whale shark's five-foot-wide-mouth, but they wouldn't want you in there. Whale sharks eat plankton. 2. Whale sharks have the thickest skin of any animal, at up to 4 inches thick. 3. They can live up to 100 years old and may have up to 300 young per litter. 4. A majority of whale sharks are caught for their fins before they even reach maturity. As a result, whale shark populations are decreasing in numerous regions and the average size of Australian whale sharks is shrinking. 5. Every whale shark has a unique pattern of white spots on its back, allowing scientists to identify individuals. (Plus it makes them mesmerizing to look at.)
Here's a heartwarming story for you this WW, again featuring the playful beluga: Mila the beluga whale guided a free diver back to the surface when she was struck with wicked leg cramps during a competition. In freezing cold water without any breathing equipment, Yang Yun felt paralyzed during a free diving contest at Polar Land in Harbin, China. She and the other participants had to dive to the bottom of the aquarium’s arctic tank and stay there for as long as possible among the beluga whales. Yun began to sink, thinking she was done for, until she felt something pushing her up. It was Mila's nose guiding Yun safely back to the surface. Belugas' facial muscles allow them to smile -- and I'm sure Mila and Yun both were grinning big after this episode.