The Beacon

Blog Tags: Whales

Whale Wednesday: Squid Herding?

Image via wikimedia commons.

BBC News reports that Oregon scientists using impressive tagging technology have shown that sperm whales may work together in a kind of zone offense to hunt their squid prey.

The researchers have evidence of the whales staying together over several months in the Gulf of Mexico. And their behavior varied with each deep dive, indicating that they alternate roles to spread out the physiological demand of the 1,000-meter dives.

One researcher said that the some whales appeared to guard the bottom of a squid bait ball, while others took advantage of the center of the ball.

Other research has suggested dolphins may exhibit herding behavior, but this is the first evidence in sperm whales; some scientists remain skeptical.

Just remember, whales: there is no "I" in "team."


Continue reading...

Jean-Michel Cousteau On Orcas

"When you take a wild cetacean (a whale or dolphin) and put it in a tank, its acoustic system is suddenly screwed up. Its sonar reverberates off of the concrete in its tank and, little by little, the animal becomes totally silenced. It’s like a person being blindfolded in a jail cell. The orcas are not used to borders or barriers, and that probably makes them very uncomfortable. Some of them don’t accept captivity and die, but others do and live like they are in prison."

That's Jean-Michael Cousteau reflecting on killer whales in the wake of last week's death of a trainer at Sea World. Cousteau is one of the world's experts on orcas and gives a fascinating, wide-ranging interview to the Santa Barbara Independent about whales and dolphins in the wild and in captivity, including a description of the enormous effort it took to rehabilitate and free Keiko, the orca that starred in "Free Willy." It's well worth a read.


Continue reading...

Whale Wednesday: Going Batty Edition

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.)


Continue reading...

Whale Wednesday: Evolution is Cool Edition

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Killer whales may be evolving into two separate species in the North Atlantic, says new research out of the UK. (Who knew orcas were common in UK waters, anyway?)

The researchers discovered that the two groups, which they have creatively dubbed "Type 1" and "Type 2" have different wear on their teeth, suggesting different diets and thus different ecological niches. Then, genetic analysis confirmed that the two types of killer whale belong to different populations.

The scientists compared the findings to how Darwin's finches adapted to fill unique ecological roles.

So what does this mean for the future of the North Atlantic killer whales? If Type 1 and Type 2 become separate species, they would require separate conservation monitoring efforts.

And if that happens, hopefully the powers that be will think of some catchier names for them.


Continue reading...

Whale Wednesday: Tiny and Weird Edition

An Australian paleobiologist has made a curious discovery about the origins of baleen whales. Studying the 25-million-year-old fossil of a primitive toothed baleen whale, Mammalodon colliveri, Dr. Erich Fitzgerald hypothesized that the early whale used its tongue and short, blunt snout to suck small prey from sand and mud on the seafloor. Yummy.

Fitzgerald’s work supports Darwin's notion that some of the earliest baleen whales may have been mudsuckers before they were filter-feeders.

And apparently the three-meter-long Mammalodon was actually a dwarf, though its name brings to mind its relative, the blue whale -- the largest animall in the history of the world.

As Dr. Fitzgerald said, “Clearly the seas off southern Australia were a cradle for the evolution of a variety of tiny, weird whales that seem to have lived nowhere else.”


Continue reading...

Whale Wednesday: Shark vs. Orca

Some consider the great white shark to be the fiercest predator in the ocean. Now Free Willy is giving the species a run for its money. Orca whales' diet traditionally includes fish, squid, birds, seals, and other whales. Now some are adding Jaws to the menu.

Several populations of orca whales have learned how to attack sharks, including the great white, with various techniques, including what some scientists are calling the “karate chop.” To execute this sly move, the orca drives the shark to the surface, then comes down on top of the shark and turns it upside down, at which point it enters a paralyzed state. In fact, all the attack methods ultimately end with the shark on its back.

If you want more, watch this recent video of one such showdown.


Continue reading...

Whale Wednesday: Circle of (Creepy) Life

Here at Whale Wednesday, we generally talk about the amazing life of whales… while they are alive. But like everything in nature, cetaceans pass on. And good thing, too, if you are a boneworm.

These strange, tiny creatures feast on the bones of mammal carcasses on the sea floor. Bobbing along as microscopic larvae until they come in contact with a whale or elephant seal, they then latch on, sending root-like structures into the bones and feathery arms into the water. The bacteria in these roots break down bone protein, while the feathery appendages draw in oxygen. And that’s not the strangest part.

All boneworms start off male, but as they sexually mature, become female. However, if a male larvae lands on a female boneworm, he will become a male worm, though remain microscopic in size. He will then go on to fertilize the females eggs, which will result in all-male larvae. And the cycle begins again.

Space is often touted as the final frontier, but the depths of the oceans hold much more mystery… and bone eating worms.


Continue reading...

Baby Beluga Needs an Inuit Name

beluga whale

A beluga whale via wikimedia commons.

Since I missed Whale Wednesday yesterday, I'm making up for it today with an update on an adorable Canadian cetacean.

As you may or may not recall, a beluga whale was born at the Vancouver Aquarium this summer. Now she needs a name, and the aquarium is asking for submissions. Here's the rub: the name must be from the Inuit language, Inuktitut, reflecting the beluga's Arctic origins. So that means no "Britney" or "Bathsheba" submissions, people.

I just submitted "illaqtuq" which, I just learned, means "laugh." Belugas have that great high-pitched twitter, after all. And it could be shortened to "Illa." Pretty good, huh?

Grand prize is an encounter with a beluga, and you can submit until Nov. 22.

 


Continue reading...

Whale Wednesday: Beaked Breakthrough

cuvier's beaked whale

A Cuvier's beaked whale off the coast of Spain. © Oceana/Jesus Renedo

It's been a while since we started the Whale Wednesday weekly feature, and I don't think beaked whales have ever gotten their day in the spotlight. Today's the day, then, for this mysterious group of cetaceans.

The BBC reports that researchers from Duke University observed the largest group of Arnoux's beaked whales -- around 60 -- ever recorded, off the coast of Antarctica.

Male beaked whales have tusks that emerge from their lower jaws, and in general beaked whales are deep divers. Of the 21 known species of beaked whales, only a few are well-known, including the Cuvier's beaked whale and the Baird's beaked whale.

But their obscurity hasn't made the members of the Ziphiidae family safe from threats.  As trawl nets have gone into deeper waters, the enigmatic creatures have become more frequent bycatch victims. 

As one of the Duke scientists, Dr. Ari Friedlander, told BBC, "The Arnoux's were a unique and amazing experience. Hopefully this brief glimpse will spawn further work to better understand the species, their distribution and behaviour, and how these animals fit into the larger ecology of the southern ocean."

 


Continue reading...

EU Court Rules Against Italy for Use of Driftnets

driftnetter

A fisherman opens up a driftnet. © Oceana/Enrique Pardo

In a big victory for our colleagues in Europe, yesterday the EU Court of Justice found Italy in violation of EU law for the country's continued use of driftnets, a fishing gear banned since 2002.

Driftnets, which float freely, sometimes for miles, are a serious threat to cetaceans, sea turtles, sharks and fish in the Mediterranean. Hundreds of thousands of whales and dolphins are killed each year by driftnets.

The day before the decision, Oceana presented its latest report on the use of driftnets in the Mediterranean and stressed that the Court's judgment was an essential step in eradicating the use of the fishing gear.

The Oceana report contains photographs from 2008 of 92 vessels with driftnets on board, 80 percent had already been identified during campaigns in previous years.

Xavier Pastor, Executive Director of Oceana Europe, said, “The judgment is an important milestone in the elimination of driftnets from the Mediterranean. At last we may be moving towards the end of this illegal fishing gear, seven years after the EU banned their use."

Over several years of campaigning in the Mediterranean, Oceana has documented and reported how driftnets, despite the ban, continue to be used, not only in Italy, but also in other areas of the Mediterranean such as Morocco, Turkey, and until recently, France.

Congratulations, Xavier and team!


Continue reading...


Browse by Date