Category Archives: Cetaceans

Mongrels

Meet Kekaimalu the Wholphin. Half whale, half dolphin.


Also, annoyingly, it has dual citizenship, so it can move to Canada.

Technically, the Wholphin is the offspring of a female bottlenose dolphin and a male false killer whale, which is technically another dolphin. (As is the true killer whale.) But remarkably, she is not only a hybrid of two different species, but different genera. What’s more, she’s no mule; Kekaimalu has given birth to three healthy calves in her home in Sea Life Park in Hawaii. She is the average of her parents’ sizes and colors, being larger and darker than the average bottlenose dolphin

and smaller and lighter than the average false killer whale.

In addition, she has an intermediate number of teeth: Bottlenoses have 88 teeth, false killers have 44; the Wholphin has 66. So, the best of both worlds, right? Not so fast. Consider that Kekaimulu has only ever lived in captivity, outside of the bloody struggle of competition, and it’s unlikely she’d survive in the wild ocean. What’s more, almost all the hybrids you hear about — the liger, the mule, the zorse and the zonkey — occur in captivity, implying that hybridization between different genera is a fluke, and often an evolutionary dead end. But recently, there’s been an epidemic of hybridization in the wild, resulting in chimaera of unique proportions: the pizzly bear, a hybrid of the polar and grizzly, and the narluga, a cross of narwhal and beluga whale. Cool, right? Like a griffin, or a pegasus, or a Wuzzle? While cross-genera hybridization sounds as exciting as something out of The Island of Dr. Moreau, what it bodes for the future of the environment is just as ultimately tragic.

Continue reading

Advertisements

Kosmos

His animal collections from the Amazon rainforest made lesser zoologists weep. He traveled into the jungle with the finest scientific equipment of his time, each instrument cradled in its own velvet-lined box. Thomas Jefferson once invited him to the White House, just to bask in his genius. Where ever he walked, he got a standing ovation. He was called “the greatest scientific explorer who ever lived”… by Charles Darwin.

He was… the most interesting naturalist in the world.


Ich weiß nicht immer Bier trinken, aber wenn ich das tue, ziehe ich Zwei XX.

That Alexander von Humboldt does not enjoy household name recognition is a testament to American scientific illiteracy. During the 19th century, he enjoyed rock star status around the world for his contributions to geology, meteorology, and zoology, and for his books recounting his adventures in the jungles of Latin America. Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his last poem to him. “Every scientist is a descendant of Humboldt,” said Emil du Bois-Reymond, the father of neurology. “He is the true discoverer of America,” said Simón Bolívar.

Though the word “ecology” didn’t exist yet, Humboldt was among the first scientists to view nature as a holistic, interconnected web, and as such he studied everything about a place’s environment wherever he traveled, from barometric pressure to soil samples. Scientific data, not religion or ideals, ruled his discipline to a degree never before achieved in field biology. During his long career, he advanced the science of volcanism, tested the bioluminescent properties of jellyfish and the electrogenerative powers of electric eels, dissected the larynx of the howler monkey, realized the use of bat guano as a fertilizer, figured out the correlation between plant species and altitude, discovered ocean currents and weather patterns, made the only reliable map of South America at the time, and met such species as the Humboldt penguin, the colossal Humboldt squid, and a subspecies of Amazon river dolphin living in the Orinoco river, Inia geoffrensis humboldtiana.

Continue reading


The Revenge of Moby Dick

The year is 1993. An Alaskan Inuit on a legal subsistence whale hunt has brought a Bowhead Whale to shore, and is cutting open its flesh. Deep in the blubber, his knife strikes something hard where no bone should be. He digs it out. If a 66-foot mass of muscle and fatty viscera could be called earth, he unearths an extraordinary artifact: a stone harpoon point, inscribed with the manufacturer’s signature. Astounded, he calls up whaling history experts in New England. It turns out that such harpoon points stopped being in use over a century ago. Tissue samples from the eyeball are sent to a state-of-the-art laboratory, which determines the whale’s age at death to be approximately 211 years; the oldest mammal ever found. This whale, killed during the Clinton administration, was swimming the frigid waters of the Bering Strait when Jefferson was president.

Though far from the largest whale, the Bowhead has two claims of note: the largest mouth in the world, and the longest lifespan of any mammal alive. Marine mammalogists believe its arctic habitat somehow preserves it beyond the years of other whales. What is more amazing to me than its two-century lifespan is how this particular whale survived the slaughter of Melville’s day, when whales were not so much harvested as mined.

Continue reading


Bang Bang You’re Dead

Here’s a superpower that you might not expect would be found in nature: Power blasts.

They’re a must-have for any superhero team: Bishop, Havok, etc. The powers themselves stem from some vague “cosmic energy” source invented by lazy science fiction writers. But at least two animals on Earth have the ability to kill using scientifically-qualified sonic blasts.

One is the sperm whale, so named because early whalers believed that the white, viscous liquid that filled the organ in its square-shaped head was sperm. Actually, it’s wax, which helps the deep-diving animal control its buoyancy: when heated by blood, it floats, and when cooled, it sinks, bringing the whale down to the depths where the giant squid swim. But scientists now believe that the spermaceti organ, as it’s called, is more than a flotation device.

All toothed whales and dolphins focus the sonic pulses they use for echolocation with a bulbous, lens-like organ in the head called the melon. But sperm whales, largest of the toothed whales, lack a melon; theirs has devolved into a decidedly un-lens-like organ called the junk. Marine biologists believe that they instead use the massive spermaceti organ to amplify and direct sonic blasts which, given the whale’s size, would be powerful enough to knock out a giant squid. The hypothesis is lent crediblity by the fact that whalers have found old sperm whales with broken jaws, or that are missing all their teeth, yet still have a full belly. (That belly being full of calamari the size of tractor wheels.)

The other animal to use sonic blasts, on the opposite end of the size spectrum, is a shrimp.
Continue reading