Tag Archives: whale

Japan continues whaling, despite international ban

Tokyo announced a new round of culls in the Southern Ocean despite the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banning them from doing that.

Sadistic hunts

Despite sparking international outrage due to whaling, Japan shows no signs of stopping. A UN ban didn’t stop them, and apparently, neither will and IWC one. The 65th meeting of the world’s whale conservation body voted by 35 to 20 with five abstentions in favour of a resolution by New Zealand which would have prevented Japan from conducting whale hunts and masquerading them as ‘scientific pursuits’.

“We are disappointed with their announcement,” Gerard Van Bohemen, the leader of the New Zealand delegation told the Guardian. “We thought it important that there was a strong statement agreed about the interpretation and application of the court’s decision but in the end it wasn’t possible to reach consensus on that.”

“We urge Japan to abide by the decision of the IWC and to refrain from launching more hunts outside of the process set up today,” said WWF’s Aimee Leslie. “If Japan truly wants to advance whale conservation as it says it does, then it should not circumvent these new IWC rules.”

This sparks a dangerous precedent – if a country refuses to accept an environmental ban of two international bodies, then how can the ban be enforced?

No science involved

To make things even more grotesque, Japan insists that these are “scientific enterprises”. That they only “harvest” whales to better study them; that’s simply not true – it’s called lying, Japan. An estimate 3,600 whales were killed since 2005 alone, that’s not science – that’s a slaughter.

Recently, Japan’s commissioner to the International Whaling Commission [IWC], Joji Morishita, sparked consternation when he claimed that Japan had published 666 peer-reviewed papers based on its scientific whaling programme in the Antarctic. However, that actual number is much smaller: it’s 2, actually. The International Court of Justice [ICJ] analyzed all the peer reviewed papers and came up with 2; quite a big difference, isn’t it? Oh, and both those papers were based on the killing of 9 whales, not 3,600.

The presiding judge of the IWC, Peter Tomka also ruled against Japanese whaling.

“Japan shall revoke any existent authorisation, permit or licence granted in relation to Jarpa II and refrain from granting any further permits in pursuance to the program.”, he concluded.

Still, the killing will continue until an enforceable solution is put forth.



Who’s got the most efficient muscle engine : the tuna or the grey whale?


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The humongous grey whale and the skipjack tuna, though of contradicting sizes, both employ similar propelling mechanisms through water. Pound per pound, however, which of the two animals is most energy efficient? Engineers at Northwestern University have developed a new metric for analyzing such problems and found that the two marine animals are almost just as energy efficient despite the great difference in mass. This newly developed metric, or standard, can be applied to almost any animal, be it marine, terrestrial or flying, as well as anthropocentric machinery, like transportation vehicles.  This way, the researchers note, they can understand where a car starts becoming less efficient once it crosses a certain weight barrier and thus design better vehicles.

Whale or tuna: whose muscles are more efficient?

“Our study is about how energy flow changes with size or mass,” said Neelesh A. Patankar, who led the research. “This is good insight to have in the transportation field, whether you are working with cars, ships or planes. What are the limits of how good you can become? Our metric can be used to determine the point where an animal or a vehicle would function most efficiently. We want to know the sweet spot.”

A truck needs more fuel compared to a small car to cover the same distance – everyone knows this this. Likewise, the husky whale consumes more energy to travel the same distance underwater as a tuna. Does it mean that the muscular “engine” propelling the whale is less efficient compared to the tuna or is the higher fuel consumption of the whale an unavoidable consequence of the laws of physics? The whale’s higher fuel consumption is unavoidable, the researchers report, and the engine efficiencies of the whale and tuna are similar.

To reach this conclusion, Patankar and team developed an energy consumption coefficient similarly to the drag coefficient employed in aerospace, which takes into account metabolic rate, muscle mass and physics. The metric was then applied to data of energy consumption by thousands of species of swimming and flying animals, ranging from tiny larval zebrafish to massive mammalian swimmers such as dolphins and whales.

The new metric successfully collapsed energy consumption data on to a single trend with respect to mass — mass that varied almost a trillion times from the smallest to the largest animal. The key idea was not to plot the energy consumption itself versus mass but instead to plot energy consumption normalized by an appropriate scale that accounts for the size of the animal.

“The study helps quench my curiosity about how nature works, but, as an engineer, I also want to see utility,” Patankar said. “The energy consumption coefficient can be an important tool in designing self-propelled underwater vehicles as well as aerial vehicles. And, as a driver, I also would like to know how efficient my car is, information currently not available to me.”

The new Northwestern metric for efficiency that enabled this comparison could be extremely useful in designing underwater vehicles — such as those used to study fragile coral reefs, repair damaged deep-sea oil rigs or investigate sunken ships — to be as efficient and agile as a real fish. Of course, motor vehicles design could also benefit from the findings reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).


UN court rules against Japan whaling

In what may be a  historic decision, the UN’s top court has ordered Japan to stop its annual whale hunt in the Antarctic. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) rejected Tokyo’s arguments that whaling has scientific purposes, in a case which many believe will shape the future of the giant mammals.

“Japan shall revoke any existant authorisation, permit or licence granted in relation to Jarpa II [research programme] and refrain from granting any further permits in pursuance to the programme,” the International Court of Justice’s Judge Peter Tomka said on Monday.

This decision was backed by almost the entire scientific community – there is no real need to use lethal methods here. Even if dead whales were somehow necessary, thousands of whales strand themselves on beaches worldwide each year – providing more than enough study naterial. But in fact, this entire “scientific” operation is merely a front for a commercial operation.

The situation was ignited when Australia asked the world court to order Japan to stop its JARPA II research programme and revoke “any authorisations, permits or licences” to hunt whales in the region. Tokyo defended itself, arguing that the operation has a scientific purpose – probably because it was the only reason they could invoke, they really have no excuse here.

Since 1988 Japan has slaughtered more than 10,000 whales under the programme, but thankfully, this will now be stopped. The decision was almost unanimously hailed. Writing for The Guardian, Karl Mathiesen says:

Today’s ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) displayed a level of resolution and common sense rarely seen in global decision making. While they declined to assess the scientific merit of the programme, the judges found that Japan’s activity was inconsistent with a nation solely interested in whale research. The conclusion was that the Japanese whaling research programme, Jarpa II, is simply a front for a not very successful commercial operation.

Spade Toothed Whale Morphology

World’s rarest whale, thought to be extinct, beached on New Zealand

Spade Toothed Whale Morphology

(c) Current Biology

The first recollection of the spade-toothed whale came in 1872, but no actual proof of its existence has been found ever since. Recently, biologists were dumbstruck when they heard not one, but two specimens of the highly elusive whale species beached on the shores of New Zealand. Unfortunately the two whales, mother and cub, died however scientists have learned a great deal about this beautiful whale.

Like I said, no one previously has ever seen a live specimen of the spade-toothed whale, and if they had they probably mistook it for some other species.  A partial skull found in New Zealand in the 1950′s and one in Chile in 1986 provided hope for biologists that the species wasn’t extinct. In 2010, two whole specimens, not just bones or shards, were found stranded on Opape Beach in New Zealand. The adult female was 5.3m long and the young male was 3.5m long.

Initially biologists thought the specimens were of the common Gray’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon grayi), however after subsequent DNA analysis by  a team of researchers led by Kirsten Thompson from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland, it was found that these were never-before-seen spade-toothed whales. A remarkable discovery!

Spade-toothed whale washed ashore

(c) New Zealand Government

But why so elusive? Well, like the 21 other known species of the Ziphiidae family, these whales have the ability to dive down to exceptionally deep areas of the ocean in search of squid and other deep-sea fish. Their relatives can dive to more than 800m below the surface for up to 87 minutes, and most likely the spade-toothed whale can reach the same feats if not more.

”It may be that they are simply an offshore species that lives and dies in the deep ocean waters and only rarely wash ashore. New Zealand is surrounded by massive oceans. There is a lot of marine life that remains unknown to us,”  Rochelle Constantine from the University of Auckland said.

Having seen its flesh for the first time, the researchers were also able to assess some physiological discrepancies from other whale species and unique features. For instance, the spade-toothed whale’s colouration of the rostrum, or ‘beak, is dark gray or black, rather than the white of the adult Gray’s beaked whale. It also has a dark eye-patch, white belly and dark flippers.

At this time it’s possible for scientists to tell how many such specimens are currently left alive in the deep waters of the pacific; what’s important, however, is that they still exist.

Findings were reported in the journal Current Biology.

Left, a fin whale after lunging; right, anatomy of the new sensory organ, responsible for coordinating the biomechanics of their extreme lunge-feeding strategy. Illustration by Carl Buell, arranged by Nicholas D. Pyenson / Smithsonian Institution.

New vital feeding sensory organ discovered in Rorqual whales

A group of researchers at University of British Columbia and the Smithsonian Institution have discovered a new sensory organ in rorqual whales, a subspecies of  baleen whales, which also includes the largest animal that has ever lived, the blue whale, capable of reaching 150 tonnes. The scientists involved in the study claim that this organ plays a vital role in the Rorqual whales signature lunge-feeding behaviour, responsible for their enormous size.

Rorqual whales include blue, fin, minke, and humpback whales and are notoriously known for their enormous size, but also for their melodic, haunting calls, whose sounds can travel across thousands of miles in the ocean. Their main physiological characteristic is a special, accordion-like blubber layer that goes from the snout to the navel. This blubber can expand several sizes its resting size during feeding, during which massive quantities of prey-filled water to be swallowed and then expelled back out while filtering the prey.

Scientists collected samples from recently deceased  fin and minke whale carcasses captured as part of Icelandic commercial whaling operations, and scanned them. A three dimensional map of the internal structure of whale tissues, revealed a grape fruit-sized sensory organ, located between the tips of the jaws, and supplied by neurovascular tissue.

“We think this sensory organ sends information to the brain in order to coordinate the complex mechanism of lunge-feeding, which involves rotating the jaws, inverting the tongue and expanding the throat pleats and blubber layer,” says lead author Nick Pyenson, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution, who conducted the study while a postdoctoral fellow at UBC. “It probably helps rorquals feel prey density when initiating a lunge.”

A fin whale, the second longest whale on the planet, can engulf as much as 80 cubic metres of water and prey – equal or greater than the size of the whale itself – in each gulp in less than six seconds.

Left, a fin whale after lunging; right, anatomy of the new sensory organ,  responsible for coordinating the biomechanics of their extreme lunge-feeding strategy. Illustration by Carl Buell, arranged by Nicholas D. Pyenson / Smithsonian Institution.

Left, a fin whale after lunging; right, anatomy of the new sensory organ, responsible for coordinating the biomechanics of their extreme lunge-feeding strategy. Illustration by Carl Buell, arranged by Nicholas D. Pyenson / Smithsonian Institution.

“In terms of evolution, the innovation of this sensory organ has a fundamental role in one of the most extreme feeding methods of aquatic creatures,” says co-author and UBC Zoology Prof. Bob Shadwick.

“Because the physical features required to carry out lunge-feeding evolved before the extremely large body sizes observed in today’s rorquals, it’s likely that this sensory organ – and its role in coordinating successful lunging – is responsible for rorquals claiming the largest-animals-on-earth status,” Shadwick adds.

“This also demonstrates how poorly we understand the basic functions of these top predators of the ocean and underlines the importance for biodiversity conservation.”

The findings were reported in the journal Nature.

Source: University of British Columbia via Planet Save.

Whale cemetery

Huge whale cemetery discovered in Chilean desert

Whale cemetery

Paleontologists have unearthed the remains of numerous whale fossils, dating back from seven million years ago,  in Northern Chile. On further analysis it was revealed that the site in question is actually home to numerous other specimens, so far no less than 80 fossils have been recovered from the whale graveyard.

“In 15 days, we have had almost 15 whales. It really was a surprise. We didn’t expect to find so many fossils in one place,” said site manager John Vega.

The whales had been perfectly preserved in the sedementary rock beneath the Atacama desert, with a number of fossils being unearthed in pristine condition,  including a family group that appears to be a mother, father and baby whale. This area was long known to be a good place for finding whale fossils, popularily known among the locals as “Whale Hill.”

All these marvelous and valuable fossils, however, could’ve been lost forever, or even worse, destroyed by a potential highway which was projected to pass through the site. Luckily, paleontologist Mario Suarez managed to persuade his government to recover the bones first. Moreover, the government now plans to build a new museum to house what appears to be an amazing collection.

Experts working on the site believe that the discovery has a global importance, as there has never been a find of this size or diversity anywhere in the world. Their discovery wasn’t limited to whale fossils, either, as remains of sharks, dolphins and seals were also found.

Whales suffer from sun burns too

You know those days when you go to the beach, and it’s just too hot outside, so you have to use some cream and all ? Well, it’s a little harder if you’re a whale. A recent study conducted that a whole lot of whales displayed blisters caused by sun damage.

Laura Martinez-Levasseur, from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Queen Mary, University of London studied more than 150 whales from the Gulf of California, by taking pictures as well as skin samples; she explained that whales are a good model for studying marine animals, because “they need to come to the surface to breathe air, to socialise and to feed their young, meaning that they are frequently exposed to the full force of the sun”.

Examining the high res pictures they located the blisters and then put the skin samples under the microscope. The results were conclusive: the blisters were caused by sun burns. They also found something else, that paler coloured whales are more exposed to this kind of damage. Darker whales have more cells that produce a dark pigment called melanin. In humans, this is the result of a slight DNA altering caused by sun burn, and all signs seem to indicate the same thing in other mammals.

“This is the first evidence that the Sun’s rays can cause skin lesions in whales,” said Ms Martinez-Levasseur.
“The increase in skin damage seen in blue whales is a matter of concern, but at this stage it is not clear what is causing this increase. A likely candidate is rising ultraviolet radiation as a result of either ozone depletion, or a change in the level of cloud cover.”

The similarities to humans don’t stop here though. Professor Edel O’Toole, a skin specialist also involved in the study said:

“As we expect to see in humans, the whale species that spent more time in the sun suffered greater sun damage. We predict that whales will experience more severe sun damage if ultraviolet radiation continues to increase.”

The study showed no signs of skin cancer, but research is still going on. Other marine animals are also exposed to this kind of burns, especially hairless animals, like dolphins for example. The damage is also more serious in the areas with more ozone depletion, especially in the poles.