Archive for the ‘Whales’ Category

By Drake Baer

Everybody knows that humpback whales make excellent professional wrestlers: With zero hesitation, these gentle giants will leap out of the sea, corkscrew their bodies, and then slam back into the water with 66,000 pounds of fury.

It turns out that these cetaceans aren’t just doing this to show off: According to a recent paper in Marine Mammal Science, the breaching serves as an acoustic telegram, communicating with far-off pods. It’s like how European or African peoples would send sonic signals from village to village via drum, or how wolves howl at the moon. Make a big enough splash, and the percussion speaks for itself.

As noted in the marine-life publication Hakai magazine, University of Queensland marine biologist Ailbhe S. Kavanagh and colleagues observed 76 humpback groups off the coast of Australia for 200 hours between 2010 and 2011. They found that breaching is way more common when pods are at least 2.5 miles apart, with fin- or fluke-slapping deployed when fellow whales are nearby.

The breaching probably carries better than whales’ signature songs: “They’re potentially using [these behaviors] when background noise levels are higher,” Kavanagh tells Hakai, “as the acoustic signal possibly travels better than a vocal signal would.” Given that whale songs have regional accents, you have to wonder if their aerial gymnastics have a certain patois, too.

http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/02/why-whales-jump-into-the-air.html

Thanks to Pete Cuomo for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

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In 2004 Reid Brewer of the University of Alaska Southeast measured an unusual beaked whale that turned up dead in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. A tissue sample from the carcass later showed that the whale was one of the newly identified species.

by MERRIT KENNEDY

For decades, Japanese fishermen have told stories about the existence of a dark, rare beaked whale that they called karasu — the “raven.”

But now, scientists say they have genetic proof to back up these tales. Long mistaken for its relative, the Baird’s beaked whale, scientists say it represents an entirely new species.

“There have been a lot of people out there surveying whales for a long time and never come across this in scientific research,” Phillip Morin, research molecular geneticist at the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, tells The Two-Way. “So it is a huge thing to discover this; it’s kind of baffling that we haven’t seen it before.” The team’s research was published Tuesday in Marine Mammal Science.

Japanese scientists published a paper in 2013 suggesting that three whales that washed ashore in Japan might represent a different species but concluding that the sample size was too small — that further research was needed. This got Morin’s attention.

What followed was an effort that involved people all over the world to find more samples of the mysterious new whale. It was “like a mystery, sleuthing out what these samples are and where they were,” he says.

Some samples were hidden in plain sight. A whale skull from the new species was on display at the Smithsonian, incorrectly identified as a Baird’s beaked whale. A Japanese scientist spotted it on a visit to the museum, Morin says. Also, a skeleton was found on display at an Alaska high school.


The only skeleton of the new species in the United States hangs on display in Unalaska High School, in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. The whale was found dead in 2004, and recent tests on stored tissue samples revealed that it is one of the few known specimens of the new species.

Two others were found at the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center’s collection, incorrectly labeled as Baird’s whales.

And fortuitously, a dead whale washed ashore on a remote island of St. George in Alaska’s Bering Sea after the search for new samples had already begun. National Geographic described that discovery, which happened in June 2014:

“A young biology teacher spotted the carcass half-buried in sand on a desolate windswept beach. He alerted a former fur seal researcher who presumed, at first, that she knew what they’d found: a Baird’s beaked whale, a large, gray, deep-diving creature that occasionally washes in dead with the tide.

“But a closer examination later showed that the flesh was too dark, the dorsal fin too big and floppy. The animal was too short to be an adult, but its teeth were worn and yellowed with age.”

Molin says the St. George specimen proved important because “the number of samples we have are very small.” And because it was a full-grown animal, it gave the researchers an idea about its length: only two-thirds the size of a Baird’s beaked whale as an adult.

Other differences: “It reportedly has a different shaped skull and maybe a shorter beak than a Baird’s beaked whale, relative to the shape of its head. And the dorsal fin is reported to be placed slightly differently, and differently shaped,” Morin says. They’re also “pretty cryptic” and spend a lot of time in very deep waters, he adds.


Illustration by Uko Gorter of the newly identified species of beaked whale, which is about two-thirds the size of and darker in color than the more common Baird’s beaked whale.

The mysterious whale has never been spotted alive by scientists. Traditionally, species identification involves “detailed measurements and description of a physical specimen,” Morin says. “But with whales, that’s a really difficult thing to do. And with a whale as rare as this, it’s even more difficult because we just don’t have those materials.” He explains that they’re using “genetics as a line of evidence” to prove the existence of a new species.

There were two previously known types of beaked whale — Baird’s, which resides in the Northern Hemisphere, and Arnoux’s, which lives in the Southern Hemisphere. The scientists said in their article that the two known species “share a common ancestor more recently than they do with the black form.”

And while it’s “pretty incredible” to be discovering a new animal that’s 24 feet long, it also hints at how much more in the deep ocean is left to be discovered, Morin says:

“We’re using more and more technologies to get us there — but as some people have said, we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the bottom of the ocean. That’s a huge amount of space to investigate. … There’s all sorts of different ways we can use technologies to explore the oceans, but it’s still going to be a long process and we’re going to continue to discover things. Probably not a lot of large whales, but who knows? It wouldn’t surprise me if there were more whales that we’ve never documented before.”

http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/07/27/487665728/mysterious-and-known-as-the-raven-scientists-identify-new-whale-species


This humpback whale protected a Weddell seal from killer whales by carrying it on its belly.

By Erik Stockstad

At first it seemed like the usual, deviously clever attack. Several killer whales were trying to catch a Weddell seal that had taken refuge atop a drifting patch of Antarctic ice. The orcas swam alongside each other, creating a wave that knocked the hapless pinniped into the water. Death seemed certain.

Then something amazing happened: A pair of humpback whales turned up. As the panicked seal swam toward them, a lucky wave tossed it onto the chest of the closer, upturned whale. The whale arched its chest out of the water, which kept the seal away from the charging killer whales. And when the seal started to fall off, the whale carefully pushed it back onto its chest with a flipper. Soon after that, the seal scrambled to safety on another ice floe.

“I was shocked,” recalls marine ecologist Robert Pitman, who witnessed the episode in 2009 and described it and another example in Natural History magazine that year. “It looked like they were trying to protect the seal.”

Humpback whales will vigorously defend their own calves when attacked by killer whales, of course. But after analyzing other encounters between the two species, Pitman and his colleagues conclude that humpback whales will also launch preemptive attacks on their predators. Sometimes the intent seemed to be protecting another whale’s calf. But more often, like with the Weddell seal, the humpbacks for some reason helped a different species.

When prey gang up and harass a predator, it’s known as mobbing. A flock of crows, for example, can drive away a hawk by repeatedly dive-bombing. The behavior is also known among fishes, insects, and terrestrial mammals, but it hadn’t been studied in marine mammals. Because of their large size, humpback whales don’t have to worry about many predators. Killer whales are the only species known to attack, and they target small calves. The mothers will try to scare them off with thunderous bellows. If that fails, they defend their young by smacking their massive tails or swinging their 5-meter-long, barnacle-encrusted fins.

To find out whether the seal rescue in Antarctica was unusual behavior for humpbacks, Pitman, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Southwest Fisheries Science Center in San Diego, California, posted a request for information on a marine mammal listserv. He received 115 descriptions of encounters, many from commercial whale-watching trips, which sometimes included photos and videos. In 31 cases of mobbing, humpbacks approached killer whales that were already engaged in a fight. They would chase the killer whales, often bellow, and slap their fins and tails. “The humpbacks were definitely on the offense,” Pitman says. He and colleagues published their findings online this week in Marine Mammal Science.

The conclusions have convinced Phillip Clapham, a NOAA marine biologist in Seattle, Washington, who was not involved in the research. “They make a very good case that it’s a proactive response to killer whales,” he says. “I think they’re absolutely right.”

It’s not hard to imagine why humpbacks would rush to the rescue when another humpback whale is under attack. Because they migrate to and from the same breeding grounds where they were born, humpbacks are likely to encounter relatives. So a threatened calf might share some genes with a rescuer, making the apparently altruistic act of saving it somewhat self-interested.

But what about protecting other species? This happened in nearly 90% of attacks where the killer whales’ prey could be identified. “It’s pretty mysterious,” says Trevor Branch, a fisheries scientist at the University of Washington, Seattle, who has studied populations of large whales. “We tend to think of altruism as being reciprocal, but there’s no way these other species would come back and help the humpback whales.”

Pitman suspects that it is inadvertent altruism. The humpbacks might simply rush to the scene of a fight whenever they hear killer whales fighting. “I think they just have a simple rule,” Pitman says. “When you hear a killer whale attack, go break it up.” Clapham adds that the confrontations may teach the killer whales a lesson, making them think twice about messing with humpbacks.

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/07/humpbacks-protect-seals-and-other-animals-killer-whales-why

A fifth sperm whale has been washed up on the east coast of England.

It follows the death of a beached whale in Hunstanton, Norfolk, on Friday and the discovery of three carcasses near Skegness over the weekend.

The sperm whales are believed from a pod spotted off the Norfolk coast.

The fifth whale was found at Wainfleet, Lincolnshire, on Monday afternoon, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency reported.

It was found on the site of a former bombing range, and warnings have been issued for people to stay away.

The Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust tweeted: “There is no public access to the area and it is extremely dangerous with tidal creeks and the potential for unexploded ordinance. Many of the lanes to the marshes are private and not accessible.”

Marine biologists were using a probe to examine one of the Skegness whales earlier on Monday when there was a “huge blast of air”, said BBC reporter David Sykes.

The letters CND had also been spray-painted by someone on the whale’s tail.

CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) said the action was not carried out by the organisation at a national level.

The word “fukushima” – presumably a reference to the stricken Japanese nuclear power station – was also written on the side of the whale’s body.

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-lincolnshire-35400884

The Omura’s whale is so rare and little-known that there hasn’t been a single confirmed sighting in the wild by scientists… until now.

Researchers working off the coast of Madagascar have captured the first-ever footage of the elusive Omura’s whales, a species so uncommon that scientists have no idea how many there are in the world.

“Over the years, there have been a small handful of possible sightings of Omura’s whales, but nothing that was confirmed,” Salvatore Cerchio of the New England Aquarium and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said in a news release. “They appear to occur in remote regions and are difficult to find at sea, because they are small and do not put up a prominent blow.”

The whales are generally between 33 feet and 38 feet in length. That makes them less than half the size of most blue whales, even though the two are cousins — both belonging to the whale family called rorquals.

Until now, the only Omura’s whales that have been found were dead whales, and those were initially mistaken for the larger Bryde’s whales until DNA tests revealed them to be a separate species.

Details about the discovery were recently published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Cerchio, who led the research while at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said that when his team first spotted the whales in 2011, they too initially believed them to be Bryde’s whales.

They, however, soon noticed the unique coloring of the head.

“When we clearly saw that the right jaw was white, and the left jaw was black, we knew that we were on to something very special,” said Cerchio. “The only problem was that Omura’s whales were not supposed to be in this part of the Indian Ocean. Rather, they should be in the West Pacific, near Thailand and the Philippines.”

The researchers were able to collect skin samples from the whales, which confirmed the rare find in 2013.

Along with the video footage, Cerchio’s team has used photographs to catalog about 25 individual whales, including four mothers with young calves.

They were also able to record whale vocalizations they believe might indicate reproductive behavior.

Cerchio is planning to return to the area to study the whales further and hopes to be able to tag some so that more can be learned about their behavior.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/omuras-whale-spotted-first-time_5632f536e4b0c66bae5bf039?utm_hp_ref=science&ir=Science&section=science

A massive humpback whale nearly flattened a pair of kayakers on California’s Central Coast when it launched out of the sea and landed on their boat.

Nearby whale watchers looked on in fright as the creature flipped the couple into the water Saturday near Monterey Bay’s Moss Landing Harbor. A video (posted above)filmed by a Sanctuary Cruises passenger and shared by the company on Facebook shows the whale’s “full 180 degree breach.”

One passenger can be heard asking anxiously, “The kayak! The kayak! Where’s the kayak?” followed by applause when the couple appeared unharmed.

The kayaking company that took the paddlers out that day has halted its whale-watching tours, citing the safety of both its kayakers and the whales.

A full-size humpback whale can weigh more than 40 tons. Sanctuary Cruises captain and co-owner Michael Sack, writing about the encounter on the company’s blog, said it was “one of the more dangerous situations that I’ve seen out here.”

There has been a high number of reported sightings of humpback whales and other marine mammals in the Monterey Bay area in the past couple of years. Saturday’s kayakers, who are tourists from the United Kingdom, were paddling through a large pod of humpback whales when they were knocked underwater. They were less than a mile from shore. Both were wearing life vests, and some other paddlers helped right their boat.

Sean Furey, a guide with Monterey Bay Kayaks who was with the group when it happened, told CNN the couple handled the whole thing “incredibly well.” The company immediately made the decision to suspend its whale-watching tours.

“We’ve talked to some biologists and we feel it’s probably affecting the health of the whales, affecting their ability to feed so we just want to make sure that the whales are safe out there and keep everybody safe here,” Furey told CNN affiliate KSBW-TV.

http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/16/travel/kayakers-nearly-crushed-by-whale-irpt/index.html

Animals often have symbiotic relationships. Egrets hang out on the backs of many large animals, picking parasites in exchange for free food and transportation. Plovers act as dentists, eating the leftover food inside the mouths of crocodiles.

But this relationship is baffling. Sometimes dolphins hitch rides on the backs of humpback whales — and it’s very possible that the only thing either party is getting out of it is a little bit of fun.

The above photo of a dolphin riding piggyback on a whale garnered lots of attention when it was posted a few years ago on Facebook by the Whale and Dolphin People Project and it’s making the rounds again this week.

According to the description that came with the photo:

“This is one of the strangest cetacean photos I’ve ever seen. It was taken by Lori Mazzuca in Hawaii. She said that the dolphin and humpback whale were playing gently together. The game seemed to be about how long the dolphin could stay atop the whale’s head while the whale swam. When the dolphin finally slipped off, it joined another dolphin and they began to leap with joy.”
The creature lovers at Discovery News were a little suspicious that the image may have been Photoshopped or altered in some way. So they asked some experts to weigh in.

“Both dolphins and humpback whales can be extremely playful with each other and other species,” said Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist and dolphin researcher at Hunter College in New York. “It is very possible that this is play, but without seeing it first-hand, I really don’t know.”

“Based on the description, I believe play would be the best explanation,” agreed Ken Ramirez, vice president of animal care and training at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. “If this were a video, there would be far more information to allow for better interpretation. But it is believed that the ‘surfing’ or bow riding that dolphins exhibit in front of boats may have had its genesis in riding in front or in the wake of big whales.

“What we may be seeing here is that type of surfing, but in this case the whale chose to give the dolphin a different type of ride.”

It’s not quite as clear as the image above, but here’s a video taken in Maui, Hawaii, of a bottlenose dolphin allegedly riding on a humpback whale.

Read more: http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/stories/why-do-dolphins-hitch-rides-whales#ixzz3gI81gckF