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.
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.
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.
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."
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!
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."
More National Geographic love this week, only this time whale-related. Yesterday I went to NatGeo's "Tuesday at Noon" series, which I've been meaning to go to for a while. Every week they show a free short film, this week's was "Kingdom of the Blue Whale," and it followed scientists in their attempts to tag and photograph blue whales in the Pacific. Not only was it a nice break in the day, but I got my blue whale fix -- which, as you may have noticed, I'm mildly obsessed with -- and I was soothed by Tom Selleck's classy narration.
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.