Stories tagged whales

Yup, it's Friday. So here we go. Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday
This week,
"Humpback whales blow bubbles around schools of fish to concentrate them for easier capture. It's called a bubble net, says David Wiley, research coordinator for Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and it's visible as a ring of bubbles at the surface. Now, with underwater digital tracking tags and custom visualization software, whale researchers can see what the whales are doing underwater when they're bubble-netting. Humpbacks are the only whales known to blow bubble nets -- a circle of bubbles that traps schools of fish for easy capture. Although this hunting technique has been documented in humpbacks for decades, just how whales make the nets wasn't well-understood until now, says David Wiley, a biologist with NOAA. Wiley and colleagues attached digital tags to Humpbacks' backs to find out what they do underwater when they're bubble-netting."
Mar
14
2011

Those sassy whales
Those sassy whalesCourtesy Currier & Ives
Word on the street is that sperm whales may have individual names. I hope so, frankly, because I'm sick of calling them ... that.

Sperm whales, it seems, have calls that are unique to the region they live in. So whales in the Caribbean might have a different call than whales living in the South Pacific. But there are parts of sperm whale calls that are, on the surface, the same in whales around the world.

I say, "on the surface" not as some ocean-related pun, but because there's a part of the whale's call—five clicks at the beginning of a call—that seem to be totally unique to individual whales. All whales make the five clicks, but if you analyze the sound in detail, there are actually subtle variations in the sounds that are unique to the whale making them. Because it comes at the beginning of each phrase, or "coda string," and because the variations are perceptible from every direction (some whale calls sound different depending on how the listener is oriented to the caller), some scientists think that the clicks could represent the "names" of individual whales, who are identifying themselves as they call out.

Pretty neat, huh?

PS—"Pretty neat," but not completely neat, because I probably can't distinguish between the whales' clicks. Here, then, is a short list of names for any whales interested in adopting more standard monikers:
-Herman
-Squid Blood
-Crybaby
-Fudgie
-Moby II
-Gentle Jeff
-Spermy
-Winston

There are, like, dozens of other possible names. These are just the first to come to mind.

Oct
13
2010

Happy as a whale in: ... in whatever.
Happy as a whale in: ... in whatever.Courtesy Ineuw
We love whale poop around here. Love it love it love it. Can’t get enough. It’s fortunate for us that whales poop so much—if you were to get the planet’s daily supply of whale poop in one place, and if you were also in that place, you would suffocate. It’d be awful.

The reason we love whale poop so much is because of its role in what Elton John and I like to call “the circle of life.”

We’ve already discussed how sperm whales have a net negative contribution to atmospheric CO2, because of all the iron in their poop. (The iron rich waste feeds tiny sea creatures, which, in turn, suck up CO2.)

It turns out that whales and their poop are also vital for the nitrogen cycle. Nitrogen is a vital nutrient for ocean life. While some parts of the ocean have too much nitrogen—extra nitrogen from fertilizers washes out through rivers, causing algae to grow out of control and create a dead zone—other areas contain a very small amount nitrogen, and local ecosystem productivity is limited by nitrogen availability.

So what brings more nitrogen to these nitrogen-poor areas? Microorganisms and fish bring it from other parts of the ocean, and release it by dying or going to the bathroom. But, also… whales bring it. Whales bring it by the crapload.

Whales, it turns out, probably play a very heavy role in the nitrogen cycle. And because the nitrogen feeds tiny ocean creatures, and those tiny ocean creatures feed larger ocean creatures, and on and on until we get to fish, more whales (and whale poop) means more fish. And we (humans) love fish.

Commercial whaling over the last several hundred years reduced global whale population to a small fraction of what it once was, but even at their current numbers whales contribute significantly to nitrogen levels in some areas. More whales, the authors of a recent whale poop study say, could help offset the damage humans have done to the oceans and ocean fisheries, while relaxing restrictions on whaling could have much further reaching ramifications than we might expect.

See? Whale poop is the best! (Whales too, I guess.)

Jun
16
2010

A sperm whale: You will never get my precious iron feces! Never!
A sperm whale: You will never get my precious iron feces! Never!Courtesy Pacman
It would be a very special day indeed if a better story than this one popped up. But I wouldn’t ask for that. How could you want any more than this: whale poop fights global warming*.

Sperm whales are the particular focus of this study. The population of sperm whales in the Southern Ocean (the waters around Antarctica) is thought to be about 12,000. (There are more sperm whales in the world, but the study looked at Southern Ocean sperm whales.) Those 12,000 whales are thought to put about 200,000 metric tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. That’s about the same amount that 40,000 passenger cars contribute each year. Destroy those polluting whales, right?

Wrong! See, it turns out that these sperm whales are also responsible for the removal of 400,000 metric tons of CO2 each year, making up for the amount they produce two times over. Their secret is this: they poop iron.

They don’t only poop iron, but sperm whales poop a lot of iron—each whale is thought to defecate about 50 metric tons of iron each year. That’s over 300 pounds a day! Obviously the whales aren’t pooping out solid iron ingots, though. It’s mixed in with their liquid feces. And that’s important.

The whales themselves don’t remove those 400,000 tons of CO2. They’re removed by phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are microscopic organisms that, like plants, use sunlight and CO2 to build their bodies. And they feed on iron.

The whales have lots of iron in their diets, because of the large amounts of fish and squid they eat. So the iron-rich whale poop is an ideal nutrient for phytoplankton. When the phytoplankton dies, the carbon they contain falls to the bottom of the ocean instead of being released back into the atmosphere. Where more carbon is trapped than is released back into the atmosphere, it’s called a “carbon sink,” and that’s what whale poop and phytoplankton create in the Southern Ocean.

Other parts of the ocean may naturally contain more iron for phytoplankton, but the Southern Ocean is poor in the nutrient, and the microorganisms rely on an iron cycle that the whales apparently play a large part in. More whales, greater carbon sink. Fewer whales, less whale poop, more atmospheric carbon.

Coincidentally, the International Whaling Commission will be meeting next week, to discuss regulations on how many whales can be harvested from the oceans each year. It’s a complicated world, isn’t it?

*I thought about making the headline “Whale poop is ‘green’” but… yuck.

Jun
10
2009

"Blerg," says the whale
"Blerg," says the whaleCourtesy Michael CATANZARITI
A Caribbean whale of an as of yet undetermined species did its best to humanely end the ridiculous lives of two British millionaires, but the attempt was ultimately unsuccessful.

By either striking the 47-foot yacht, or shrewdly allowing the yacht to strike it, the whale placed a small hole in the $245,000 boat, which began to slowly fill with the warm, salty water surrounding the British Virgin Islands.

After feeble attempts at stuffing pillows into the hole, the couple retreated to the lifeboat to preserve their ludicrous existence. One of the humans did, however, briefly return to the damaged and sinking vessel for a change of clothes, not wanting to be seen in her “sailing boots and shorts” when rescued. No doubt overcome with depression by this final site, the whale made no further attempts to separate the sailors from their lives.

An equally ridiculous pair of yacht owners rescued the shipwrecked couple some hours later. The whale has not been reached for comment. (It’s probably dead anyway.)

Sperm whales might just be those mean kids of the ocean who shake you down for your lunch money. Or, they may simply be pretty smart hunters who've figured out how to get the better of human technology and steal fish off of commercial fishing lines in the ocean. Watch some amazing video (below) of a sperm whale "cleaning off" a fishing line.

Here's a link to the National Geographic report on this phenomenon.

One of the best afternoons of my life was spent on a boat off of Cape Cod watching humpback whales frolicking. Now, in the video below, the roles are reversed thanks to the "Crittercam." The new technology used to give us an animal's-eye-view of the world has been strapped on a humpback to show us what they see in the waters. Enjoy.

After being hunted nearly to extinction a century ago, the North Atlantic right whale is starting to make a comeback. Though still critically endangered, it's population has tripled in recent years, and this year has already shattered the record for live births.

Oct
09
2008

Pipe down: What's causing all this noise we're hearing down here under the water?
Pipe down: What's causing all this noise we're hearing down here under the water?Courtesy Whit Welles
“Hey, quiet down up there. We can’t hear a thing down here.”

No, it’s not the lament of some landlord who’s rented out the upper level apartment to a rock-and-roll loving tenant. It’s a case being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court right now pitting whales off the coast of California against the U.S. Navy.

Justices heard oral arguments yesterday on the case. Environmentalists are challenging the Navy’s claim to perform training exercises along the California coast which use extensive and strong sonar transmissions. The sound waves of those sonar blasts can harm whales and other marine mammals, petitioners contend, with sounds that can be up to 2,000 times louder than a jet engine. Some scientists feel that sounds that loud can cause whales to lose hearing loss, bleed on the brain and possibly lead to mass strandings on beaches.

Decision spot: The U.S. Supreme Court is the site of a pending decision pitting U.S. Navy sonar training exercises against the health of marine mammals like whales.
Decision spot: The U.S. Supreme Court is the site of a pending decision pitting U.S. Navy sonar training exercises against the health of marine mammals like whales.Courtesy Thor Carlson
The Navy says that strong sonar level is critical to be able to detect submarines that can elude weaker modes of sonar.

Based on justices’ questions and reactions, however, it appears that court is leaning toward siding with the Navy and national security concerns.

Here’s a full report on yesterday’s court session. Justices were pretty upfront in stating their lack of expertise in mammal biology and national defense matters.

So if you had to decide on this conflict, where would you come down on this question? Does the health and a comfort of whales trump national security? Is loud sonar just an unfortunate byproduct of keeping our national interests safe? Share your thoughts here with other Buzz readers.