January 26 – All’s Whale That Ends Whale

Today’s Factismal: A whale exploded in the town of Tainan, Taiwan on January 26, 2004, shattering windows and crushing cars.

There are a few basic rules of good research. Don’t forget to turn off the Bunsen burner. Don’t drink and derive. And (most essential of all) never mess with a rotting whale.

This sperm's whale's death is just the beginning of a new life for thousands of other critters (Image courtesy USFWS)

This sperm’s whale’s death is just the beginning of a new life for thousands of other critters
(Image courtesy USFWS)

That last is important because of what happens when anything dies: things start to grow in it that shouldn’t. And those things generate methane, flavored with intestinal ketones and esters of pure yuck. Now, if people left the rotting things alone, then they’d do no real harm in the short run and end up giving you better soil in the long run (think of what a compost heap does for your garden). But they sure do smell, courtesy of all of those ketones and esters. And that means that people invariably want to put that smell as far away as possible.

So people try to blow up whales. And they try to bury whales. And they try to drive whales through the middle of downtown on a truck bed. And it never ends well.

At least, not on land. But scientists have done some interesting work with whale carcasses in the ocean and gotten amazing results. When whale carcasses wash ashore in California, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute pulls them out to sea and sinks them where they can be watched. Over the years, they’ve learned how whale carcasses and other big messes get cleaned up on the ocean floor.

Even when there is nothing but bones left, a whale's carcass can provide food to other critters. (My camera)

Even when there is nothing but bones left, a whale’s carcass can provide food to other critters.
(My camera)

First, the big predators like sharks, crabs, and hagfish come by and strip away the meat. Then comes a type of worm known as the “bone-eating snot flower” (Osedax mucofloris ) for its diet and shape. Osedax worms only live on whale bones; more specifically, they bore into the whale bones using acid and then suck the marrow from the bones. The marrow is rich in fat, which feeds bacteria that live in the Osodex worm. The bacteria then give off wastes that the worm is able to use as food. Within a matter of months, a colony of Osodex worms can reduce a whale skeleton to a giant pile of mush, suitable for enriching the ocean floor. There are similar detritovores that live on land, from the vulgar earthworm to the sacred dung beetle. And without them, the world would be a lot messier and less pleasant to live in.

If you’d like to try find where whales congregate and maybe tell the scientists about your close encounter with a whale (living or dead {the whale, not you}), then swim on over to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Marine
Mammal Sightings Database where you can search their database of whale sightings and add yours:
http://www.cisanctuary.org/mammals/

June 10 – With Great Porpoise

Today’s factismal: Orcas are the largest dolphins which makes them the largest of the smallest whales.

An orca patrols in the Salish Sea (My camera)

An orca patrols in the Salish Sea
(My camera)

Nature is confusing. Where people like to draw clean lines separating this from that, nature tends to smear things together. Dust becomes rubble becomes planets becomes stars. A pile of dirt becomes a hill becomes a mountain. And an individual becomes a subspecies becomes a species becomes a genus becomes a family. For an example of that last, let’s consider the orca, known popularly as a “killer whale”.

A mother orca and her baby swim in the Puget Sound (My camera)

A mother orca and her baby swim in the Puget Sound
(My camera)

If you ask the average armchair taxonomist about the orca, they will quickly point out that the orca is actually a dolphin and therefore isn’t a “real” whale. As usual, the armchair taxonomist is flat wrong. In history, dolphins were separated from “true whales” based mostly on their size; a typical dolphin is about as big as a human but a typical whale is as big as a whale. However, once you start looking at the biology, things get a little more complicated.

Whales
For example, the dwarf sperm whale is just nine feet long and weighs just 550 lbs while the bottlenose dolphin can reach 13 feet long and weigh as much as 1,400 lbs. And the beluga whale is 18 feet long and weighs 3,500 lbs while an orca is up to 30 feet long and weighs as much as 8,000 lbs. So clearly calling something a whale or a dolphin is more a matter of custom than biology.

Orcas frolic in the Salish Sea (My camera)

Orcas frolic in the Salish Sea
(My camera)

Of course biologists prefer to avoid the question entirely and refer to dolphins, whales, and the often overlooked porpoises all as cetaceans which translates literally into “whales”. And once they’ve done that, they break the cetaceans into those like the blue whale that filter-feed (the mysticeti or “baleen whales”) and those like the orca that chomp down to chow down (the odontoceti or “toothed whales”). As a result, the lines that the biologists draw are somewhat more in line with nature’s. And one of the ways that the biologists are drawing the lines is with the sounds made by the orcas. By listening to different groups of orcas in the Salish Sea, biologists hope to discover more about how orcas live and interact. To help them with this work, all you need is a computer and a pair of ears. You’ll listen to sound files from under the sea and then tell the biologists what you heard. To learn more, swim over to:
http://www.orcasound.net/

December 2 – A Whale Of A Sound

Today’s factismal: The blue whale is the loudest animal known; its cries can reach 188 decibels, or about twenty times as loud as a jet engine!

Good old Balaenoptera musculus (“muscular winged whale”). Not only is it the largest animal on Earth, ever, it is also the loudest (probably also ever). This mighty master of the ocean will call out to other blue whales with a cry that crosses the ocean. It sound is so loud that any fish nearby are stunned and may even be killed by the pressure wave it generates. Interestingly, we are still uncertain exactly why the blue whale makes such loud sounds.

A blue whale call (Image courtesy NOAA)

A blue whale call
(Image courtesy NOAA)

Certainly, it is used for echolocation, but a quieter sound would do as well for that. And it may be used for long-distance communication, but a more focused sound would do as well. And it is possible that it is used for self defense; we know that sharks and other predators will feed on blue whales. But whales aren’t the only things that make noise in the ocean; there are also fish (like the aptly named grunt), waves, and even man. Some researchers think that the increasing clamor in the ocean may be driving the whales to distraction.

And noise pollution isn’t just a problem underwater; it affects the quality of life here on dry land, too. If you’d like to measure the noise pollution at your home, then download the Noise Tube app and see how much you’ve been hearing!
http://noisetube.net/#&panel1-1

September 20 – Getting Nosey

A side view of the nose of a humpback whale (My camera)

A side view of the nose of a humpback whale
(My camera)

One of the largest set of nostrils in the animal kingdom belongs to the humpback whale. Known to whalers and armchair bloviators alike as a blowhole, this is the sole way that air gets in and out of a whale’s lungs (no mouth breathers in the cetacea!). When the shale comes to the surface, it breathes out quickly and strongly. When the warm, moist air in its lungs meets the cool, dry air over the ocean, the water condenses into a characteristic plume of droplets. Just by looking at the shape of the “blow” an expert can identify the species of whale!

A rear view of a humpback's nose (My camera)

A rear view of a humpback’s nose
(My camera)

The nostrils do more than just allow the whale to breathe; they also allow it to “see”. Just below the blowwhole are  a series of small (for a whale) sinus-like air sacs. When the whale is underwater, it pushes air through the sacs, playing them like the world’s largest nose-flute. The sounds that it creates spread out through the water and get reflected back; by listening to the echoes, the whale can build up a picture of the world around it.

June 29 – Whale Of A Time

Today’s factismal: Orcas are the largest dolphins which makes them the largest of the smallest whales.

Nature is confusing. Where people like to draw clean lines separating this from that, nature tends to smear things together. Dust becomes rubble becomes planets becomes stars. A pile of dirt becomes a hill becomes a mountain. And an individual becomes a subspecies becomes a species becomes a genus becomes a family. For an example of that last, let’s consider the orca, known popularly as a “killer whale”.

An orca from South America (Image courtesy Mlwelan)

An orca from South America
(Image courtesy Mlwelan)

If you ask the average armchair taxonomist about the orca, they will quickly point out that the orca is actually a dolphin and therefore isn’t a “real” whale. As usual, the armchair taxonomist is flat wrong. In history, dolphins were separated from “true whales” based mostly on their size; a typical dolphin is about as big as a human but a typical whale is as big as a whale. However, once you start looking at the biology, things get a little more complicated. For example, the dwarf sperm whale is just nine feet long and weighs just 550 lbs while the bottlenose dolphin can reach 13 feet long and weigh as much as 1,400 lbs. And the beluga whale is 18 feet long and weighs 3,500 lbs while an orca is up to 30 feet long and weighs as much as 8,000 lbs. So clearly calling something a whale or a dolphin is more a matter of custom than biology.

A penguin's-eye view of an orca (Image courtesy National geographic)

A penguin’s-eye view of an orca
(Image courtesy National Geographic)

Of course biologists prefer to avoid the question entirely and refer to dolphins, whales, and the often overlooked porpoises all as cetaceans which translates literally into “whales”. And once they’ve done that, they break the cetaceans into those like the blue whale that filter-feed (the mysticeti or “baleen whales”) and those like the orca that chomp down to chow down (the odontoceti or “toothed whales”). As a result, the lines that eh biologists draw are somewhat more in line with those not drawn by nature. And one of the ways that the biologists are drawing the lines is with the sounds made by the orcas. By listening to different groups of orcas in the Salish Sea, biologists hope to discover more about how orcas live and interact. To help them with this work, all you need is a computer and a pair of ears. You’ll listen to sound files from under the sea and then tell the biologists what you heard. To learn more, swim over to:
http://www.orcasound.net/

January 26 – Thar She Blows!

Today’s Factismal: A whale exploded in the town of Tainan, Taiwan in 2004, shattering windows and crushing cars.

There are a few basic rules of good research. Don’t forget to turn off the Bunsen burner. Don’t drink and derive. And (most essential of all) never mess with a rotting whale.

That last is important because of what happens when anything dies: things start to grow in it that shouldn’t. And those things generate methane, flavored with intestinal ketones and esters of pure yuck. Now, if people left the rotting things alone, then they’d do no real harm in the short run and end up giving you better soil in the long run (think of what a compost heap does for your garden). But they sure do smell, courtesy of all of those ketones and esters. And that means that people invariably want to put that smell as far away as possible.

So people try to blow up whales. And they try to bury whales. And they try to drive whales through the middle of downtown on a truck bed. And it never ends well.

At least, not on land. But scientists have done some interesting work with whale carcasses in the ocean and gotten amazing results. When whale carcasses wash ashore in California, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute pulls them out to sea and sinks them where they can be watched. Over the years, they’ve learned how whale carcasses and other big messes get cleaned up on the ocean floor.

First, the big predators like sharks, crabs, and hagfish come by and strip away the meat. Then comes a type of worm known as the “bone-eating snot flower” (Osedax mucofloris ) for its diet and shape. Osedax worms only live on whale bones; more specifically, they bore into the whale bones using acid and then suck the marrow from the bones. The marrow is rich in fat, which feeds bacteria that live in the Osodex worm. The bacteria then give off wastes that the worm is able to use as food. Within a matter of months, a colony of Osodex worms can reduce a whale skeleton to a giant pile of mush, suitable for enriching the ocean floor. There are similar detritovores that live on land, from the vulgar earthworm to the sacred dung beetle. And without them, the world would be a lot messier and less pleasant to live in.

If you’d like to try your hand at making the world of science a better place to live in, then consider working with Whales.fm as they try to match whale songs from across the globe:
http://whale.fm/

October 30 – Get Humpback Where You Belong

Today’s factismal: A new species of humpback dolphin has been identified, living off the Australia coast.

Great news from Down Under this week – scientists have identified a new species of humpback dolphin, living off the northern coast near Darwin, Australia. These dolphins looked very similar to another, known species of humpback dolphins, which is why they weren’t identified before. It took several years of data collection and comparison before the scientists could conclusively say that this was a new species. But the best part of the news is that it might not have happened at all if it weren’t for citizen scientists!

You see, in order to identify the as-yet unnamed species, scientists needed to compare the bodies of the new dolphin to those of known dolphins. They had two primary tools to do that with. First, they used the preserved skeletons of 180 dead dolphins that had been collected over the past few decades, and looked for consistent differences. (If one skeleton has an unusual bump, that may just be a freak. But if many of them do, then it is probably a new species.) And then they turned to DNA collected by volunteers from beached dolphins; the volunteer humans would take a blood sample from the beached dolphin before helping it head back out to sea. Using 235 samples, the scientists were able to analyze both the cellular DNA (which tells about the animals) and the mitochondrial DNA (which tells about the animals’ families). Based on their results, they knew that they had a new species.

The new dolphin species (Image courtesy Guido Parra)

The new dolphin species
(Image courtesy Guido Parra)

The new species of dolphin is about eight feet long, weighs about 300 pounds, and has a distinctive hump under it dorsal fin (the “shark fin” at the top). They rang in color from grey to pinkish white, and have a long, thin mouth filled with 34 sharp teeth that they use to catch fish. (They like to eat mullets, so Billy Ray better not go swimming there.) But that’s about all that we know for sure about the new species. With time and patient observation, we should learn more.

And that is also what is needed to help understand the harbor porpoises that live in the Salish Sea north of Seattle: time and observations. And there is a group of researchers looking for citizen scientists to help them make those observations. If you are interested in being part of the group, then head over to the Pacific Biodiversity Group’s website. Who knows? Maybe there’s another new species hiding in plain sight there as well!
http://www.pacificbio.org/helpout/volunteer-marine-mammal-monitoring.html