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kottke.org posts about whales

Watch Scavengers Devour a Fallen Whale Carcass on the Sea Floor

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 22, 2019

The Nautilus expedition exploring the Davidson Seamount near Monterey Bay turned up something interesting last week: a relatively recent whale fall. A whale fall is when the body of a dead whale settles on the deep-sea floor, providing sustenance for the marine life in that area for decades.

While evidence of whale falls have been observed to remain on the seafloor for several years, this appears to be a relatively recent fall with baleen, blubber, and some internal organs remaining. The site also exhibits an interesting mid-stage of ecological succession, as both large scavengers like eel pouts are still stripping the skeleton of blubber, and bone-eating Osedax worms are starting to consume lipids (fats) from the bones. Other organisms seen onsite include crabs, grenadier, polychaetes, and deep-sea octopus.

The scientists were *so* excited to find this, a thriving mini ecosystem & food web in the process of formation at a depth of over 10,600 feet. They got pulled away from the carcass but went back for a closer look later.

You can read more about whale falls and their impact on deep-sea ecosystems in this New Yorker story from earlier this year.

For denizens of the seafloor, a whale fall is like a Las Vegas buffet — an improbable bounty in the middle of the desert. Rosebud had delivered about a thousand years’ worth of food in one fell swoop. The first animals to pounce had been scavengers, such as sleeper sharks and slimy, snake-like hagfish. In the course of about six months, they had eaten most of the skin and muscle. Inevitably, the scavengers had scattered pieces of flesh around the whale carcass, and native microbes had multiplied quickly around those scraps. Their feeding frenzy, in turn, had depleted oxygen in the seafloor’s top layers, creating niches for microbes that could make methane or breathe sulfate.

As Rosebud came into view, we saw colorful microbial carpets light up the screens-plush white, yellow, and orange mats, each a community of microbes precisely tuned to their chemical milieu. The whale’s towering rib cage had become a cathedral for worms, snails, and crabs, which grazed beneath its buttresses. A few hungry hagfish slithered through the skull’s eye sockets. When the cameras zoomed in, we saw that the bones were covered in red splotches. Rouse leapt from his chair and rushed to the monitors for a closer look: he suspected that the red tufts were colonies of remarkable bone-eating worms called Osedax, which had only just recently been described in a rigorous scientific study.

Pattern Radio: Whale Songs

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 10, 2019

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Google have teamed up on a project to identify the songs of humpback whales from thousands of hours of audio using AI. The AI proved to be quite good at detecting whale sounds and the team has put the files online for people to listen to at Pattern Radio: Whale Songs. Here’s a video about the project:

You can literally browse through more than a year’s worth of underwater recordings as fast as you can swipe and scroll. You can zoom all the way in to see individual sounds — not only humpback calls, but ships, fish and even unknown noises. And you can zoom all the way out to see months of sound at a time. An AI heat map guides you to where the whale calls most likely are, while highlight bars help you see repetitions and patterns of the sounds within the songs.

The audio interface is cool — you can zoom in and out of the audio wave patterns to see the different rhythms of communication. I’ve had the audio playing in the background for the past hour while I’ve been working…very relaxing.

Studying Humpback Whales to Better Communicate with Aliens

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 20, 2018

In this video, a pair of scientists talk about their work in studying the communication patterns of humpback whales to learn more about how we might someday communicate with a possible extraterrestrial intelligence. No, this isn’t Star Trek IV. For one thing, whales have tailored their communication style to long distances, when it may take hours to received a reply, an analog of the length of possible interplanetary & interstellar communications. The scientists are also using Claude Shannon’s information theory to study the complexity of the whales’ language and eventually hope to use their findings to better detect the level of intelligence in alien messages and perhaps even the social structure of the alien civilization itself.

P.S. Fascinating whale facts are sprinkled throughout the video. Humpback whales “have had the Ocean Internet for millions of years” and can communicate directly with each other up to 1000 km away. That means that a whale off the coast of Portland, OR can chat with another whale near San Francisco. (via @stewartbrand)

This is how sperm whales sleep

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 27, 2017

Sleeping Sperm Whales

Sperm whales sleep together in a pod facing up in the water. From bioGraphic:

Photographer Franco Banfi and his fellow divers were following this pod of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) when the giants suddenly seemed to fall into a vertical slumber. This phenomenon was first studied in 2008, when a team of biologists from the UK and Japan inadvertently drifted into a group of non-responsive sperm whales floating just below the surface. Baffled by the behavior, the scientists analyzed data from tagged whales and discovered that these massive marine mammals spend about 7 percent of their time taking short (6- to 24-minute) rests in this shallow vertical position. Scientists think these brief naps may, in fact, be the only time the whales sleep.

Photo by Franco Banfi, a finalist in the 2017 Big Picture Competition.

Striking B&W photos of humpback whales

posted by Jason Kottke   May 30, 2017

Cresswell Humpbacks

Cresswell Humpbacks

Jem Cresswell swam with humpback whales, took over 10,000 black & white photos, and whittled them down into his series, Giants. From Colossal:

In addition to being intrigued by the animals’ size, the Australian-based artist is also fascinated by their brains. In 2006, spindle cells, which were only thought to be present in humans and great apes, were also found to exist within the brains of humpback whales. These cells, which are tied to social organization, empathy, and intuition, were found to be more than three times as prevalent in humpback whales than they were in humans.

Humpbacks aren’t blue whales,1 but that reminded me of a passage I read recently from Robert Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst:

Many neurons are also outlandishly large. A zillion red blood cells fit on the proverbial period at the end of this sentence. In contrast, there are single neurons in the spinal cord that send out projection cables many feet long. There are spinal cord neurons in blue whales that are half the length of a basketball court.

Anyway, here’s a behind-the-scenes of Cresswell doing his work.

Beautiful. I may have to add “swimming with humpbacks” to my bucket list.

  1. Duh. As the largest animal ever known to swim the ocean or walk the earth, blue whales are almost twice as big as humpbacks and can live more than twice as long.

WhaleSynth, a neat online toy for generating whale sounds

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 15, 2017

WhaleSynth

WhaleSynth is a cool little instrument for making whale sounds. There are three different species of whale to choose from, you can add clicks and sonar echoes, and you can also adjust the depth and number of whales in your chorus. Warning: this might occupy many many minutes of your time but could also soothe frayed political nerves.

Humpback whales: the Guardian Angels of the sea

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 03, 2016

There is evidence that humpback whales deliberately disrupt killer whale hunts, saving other animals from being killed by them.

Marine ecologist Robert Pitman observed a particularly dramatic example of this behavior back in 2009, while observing a pod of killer whales hunting a Weddell seal trapped on an ice floe off Antarctica. The orcas were able to successfully knock the seal off the ice, and just as they were closing in for the kill, a magnificent humpback whale suddenly rose up out of the water beneath the seal.

This was no mere accident. In order to better protect the seal, the whale placed it safely on its upturned belly to keep it out of the water. As the seal slipped down the whale’s side, the humpback appeared to use its flippers to carefully help the seal back aboard. Finally, when the coast was clear, the seal was able to safely swim off to another, more secure ice floe.

Pitman has collected 115 incidents of humpbacks messing with orca hunts. (via @unlikelywords)

Divers almost eaten by whales.

posted by Aaron Cohen   Jul 23, 2013

Normally the ‘danger in the water’ beat focuses on sharks, but here’s a video of two divers almost getting eaten by two humpback whales. The impatient among you may skip ahead to about :30. The whales would have you believe this was accidental. Youtube commenter tom bill said this was his “number 1 fear,” and I have to say, I spend more than my share of time thinking about things going wrong in the ocean. However, the idea I might be accidentally eaten by whales never even occurred to me, which means I’ve got some more thinking to do.

(via reddit)

A fragment of a weapon used by

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 14, 2007

A fragment of a weapon used by late 19th century whalers was found embedded in a bowhead whale, suggesting that the animal was over 100 years old.