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Posts Tagged ‘pygmy sperm whale’

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?

Job 41:1

We all know about sperm whales. They are creatures that pop up in our legends and myths. They have appeared in great works of literature, and we already have a popular concept of what these animals are.

There are three modern species.

The cachalot or the common sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) is the one most think of when considering these toothed whales. It is a relatively large whale, reaching lengths in excess of 65 feet. It is known for having the largest brain of any living mammal, and it is also known diving to great depths to grapple with giant squid, its main prey source.

The common sperm whale is the largest predator on earth. The great rorquals, such as the fin and blue whale, are quite a bit larger, but they are not considered true predators. They are filter feeders, who rely upon the baleen in their mouths to strain out tiny fish and krill for sustenance.

The cachalot has large, pointed teeth, which the whalers once collected and used to make scrimshaw.  The whales were killed for their blubber, which was used to make train oil.

In the heads of these whales is an organ that produces a white, waxy substance. When the whalers would kill one of these whales, they would come across this substance and assumed that it was the whale’s semen. The term for this substance is spermaceti (“sperm of the whale”) because this really poor understanding of whale anatomy. It was later found to have several industrial properties. It could be used to make candles and industrial lubricants. It could also be used to make cosmetics, ointments, and cerates.

It was a wonder of a substance for its time.

We also know sperm whales from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which is partly based upon a true story of a bull sperm whale that rammed a whaling ship in the South Pacific.  Bulls are known to be quite protective of their cows, and it is not an urban legend that they might ram a ship to in defense of their females.

Such was the fate of the whaler known as The Essex. It was sunk when a bull sperm whale rammed it, and the whalers had to escape in their smaller whale chasing boats across the South Pacific.  A really good account can be found in this book. Let’s just say that the story includes cannibalism, including sucking the marrow out of another human’s bones.

Herman Melville liked the story so much that he used part of it as the basis for his narrative. Of course, Melville would have heard other stories of bull sperm whales whose aggression towards whalers had become something of legend. (One of these was called “Mocha Dick,”  if that means anything.)

Most people are familiar with this sperm whale.

However, there are two other species that are quite a bit smaller. These are the two whales in the genus Kogia— the dwarf and the pygmy sperm whales. They are significantly smaller than the cachalot. They are both dolphin-sized creatures.  Like the common sperm whale, both of these creatures have spermaceti organs in their heads. Both also carry a reddish substance in their intestines. If they are spooked, they will release that substance. It is thought to be used in the same way as the octopus’s ink. The predator becomes confounded in the substance, allowing the little whale to escape.

I had an encounter with a dead pygmy sperm whale that washed up on the beach on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I had been walking on the beach that morning, as was my normal custom. I saw this pinkish thing off in the distance, and people were stopping to look at it.

I thought nothing of it. I just kept on walking. I didn’t think anything of it. I generally keep my eyes on the birds that frequent the shore, and occasionally, I look out to see if any dolphins or porpoises are swimming just beyond the waves.

When I got closer, I realized it was a whale, and not only that, I knew what it was.

It was dead, but it had not been dead long enough to really start decaying. I could  clearly see its pink belly and blue-gray skin. I could see its brown eyes and its “false gills” behind its head. It had a gash on top of its head. It was likely the result of a run in with a boat propeller. Its hooked teeth were visible in its tiny lower jaw.

With teeth like that, it looked like some kind of monster.

A small crowd began to appear around the corpse.  Vultures of curiosity, I suppose.

I wish I hadn’t answered the question of its identity from someone standing nearby. As soon as my mouth opened, I appeared to be an expert. I am not one. I am not a marine biologist. (The scene was somewhat reminiscent of this).

But I saw my first sperm whale that day.

It wasn’t a big one, but it was something I had only read about or seen on television.

I suppose running into a putrid specimen on a hot, humid beach in North Carolina isn’t quite the same as seeing a real live one.

But it’s close.

Now, those were the facts I knew about sperm whales. They are pretty much just strange toothed whales.

Well, it turns out that there was one a large sperm whale that didn’t use its massive teeth and jaws to hunt squid.

There was once a real Leviathan.

The discovery was released yesterday in the journal Nature.

Fossilized jaws and most of a skull were found in the Peruvian desert. Also found were some massive teeth.

The researchers, who were led by Dr. Christian de Muizon, realized they had discovered something unusual. They had discovered a predatory form of sperm whale that did not live mostly on giant squid.

Even though it was about the same size as the modern sperm whale, this creature was like a giant orca; for instead of eating giant squid, its diet most likely consisted of other marine mammals, including other whales.

This whale was dated to 12 million years ago, and although it may be a bit speculative, it suggests that the common sperm whales evolved from a group of giant predatory whales that later became more specialized as the ecology changed.

It is now believed that 12 million years ago, the oceans were full of large prey species. It would have had to have been to support super predators like this whale and the Megalodon shark, which is also believed to have preyed on whales. Creatures like that need a lot of food sources that are the size of whales, and the oceans must have been beaten to a froth with the number of whale species that once lived there.

As the oceans lost their ability to support these large animals, the Megalodon became extinct and the big sperm whales evolved in to giant squid hunters.

The name for this newly discovered whale is quite literary. Its name is Leviathan melvillei. Leviathan– for the sea creature that is mentioned in the Book of Job.  Melvillei– for the author who created the image of  the fierce sperm whale in the public consciousness.

In fact,  I don’t think I’ve  come across a better scientific name than this one.

But I don’t think I’d want to draw out that creature with a hook.

I don’t think I’d like to meet it unless I was really well-armed.

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When I was growing up, I spent a large part of my summers at the beach. My aunt and uncle had a condo on the Outer Banks, and my family used to spend three weeks a summer there. We would go when school was out for the summer, and then we would go again for the Fourth of July. We would make a final trip before school started again. It was a way to spend the summer– part of it in the bucolic countryside of West Virginia and part of it only sea-salted air of the Outer Banks.

I am not a person who sunbathes. I don’t think we humans are meant to be walruses, hauling our bodies onto the shore and letting the sun beat down on us. I am a beach comber, and I have always been interested in what animals use the littoral zone. I am pretty good at identifying the shorebirds of the North Carolina coast, and I have seen sea turtle tracks that reach from the surf to their nesting places on the beach. However, to get to really experience these things, I would always walk as far as  I could from the public bathing areas and the resorts. Only the intrepid would ever go so far, for the sand flies and mosquitoes tended to be rather strong at certain points during the summer and narrow barrier islands are rather hard to negotiate during high tide.

I have seen lots of interesting things wash ashore.

I remember walking along the beach during what we call “spring break” in the US. It actually happens in the late winter. In fact, it was snowing in West Virginia when we left. However, the beach in winter can be a remarkable place. I saw lots of cormorants diving among the waves. I also watched large numbers of brown pelicans dive into the water. Now, in the summer months, I rarely saw cormorants, and the number of pelicans diving from the sky was much lower.

But that was not the most interesting bird I saw on that trip.

I saw a dead white bird that had washed ashore in a raft of seaweed. When I approached it I could see it was a northern gannet, a bird I had only read about but had never seen. It was too bad that I had come across a dead specimen rather than a living one.

But even that bird wasn’t the most interesting thing I’ve found while beach combing.

One summer I was walking along the coast early in the morning. The tide was out, but at the narrow points on the beach the surf was beginning to come in. The surf was starting to nip at my heels as I passed the public bathing area.

As soon as I was through, the beach opened up in all its white sandy glory. Joggers were running down the coast. Some of them at the far end of the island were but tiny specs.  The sea breeze was blowing gently. The gulls were lining the shore, while the turns squabbled over their position on the beach. A skimmer hovered over the surf, occassionally lowering its thick bottom jaw into to the water to troll for small fish. All was as beach on the Outer Banks should be.

As I walked on, I saw a grey shape looming ahead. I noticed a mother and a daughter stopping to look at it. They had baskets full of shells, and I assumed they had found some interesting shells around that grey lump of flotsam or jetsam.

I continued on, keeping my eye peeled for the dolphins I had seen the day before. They were Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. I had often seen them foraging just a few yards off shore.  The day before the dolphins had come in really close. I surmised that there had been a shoal of small bait fish close to the coast that day, and the dolphins had cornered them up against the beach for easy picking.

As I kept walking, I noticed that the grey lump had a tail. In fact, the tail had a fluke, just like a dolphin. Could it be a dolphin that beached on the shore?

I  hastened my pace. I did not full out run, because I knew that if I started running towards the shape, it would definitely draw attention to it. So I kept walking, just at quicker pace.

When I got close enough to the grey lump, I realized that I had come across something really interesting. It was a cetacean. And unfortunately, it was quite dead.

However, it was not a bottlenose dolphin.

It head was thick and rounded, much more like a whale than any dophin I had seen. Its bottom jaw was tiny by comparison. Its jaw was lined with thick, sharp teeth.

I knew what I had come across. A few months before, I had purchased a guide book to the marine mammals of North America. I had learned that there were three species of sperm whale. One was the cachalot, the great whale that grappled with giant squid many fathoms down below the surface. It was the species immortalized in Melville’s Moby Dick.  The other two were much smaller. The one most common on the East Coast is the pygmy sperm whale, and it is better known for being a light shade gray and a more conical head shape. The other species of sperm whale is also small. It is called the dwarf sperm whale. It has a squarer head and darker coloration. It also has a larger dorsal fin in proportion to its body size.

I knew that I had come across a pygmy sperm whale. I was quite surprised. I ran back to tell my parents, who followed me closesly back to the whale. By then a crowd had gathered aroud the whale. And suddenly found myself like George Costanza, an impromptu marine biologist. I explained the taxonomy of the species and how it was related to the bigger sperm whale that everyone knows. I explained how its jagged teeth helped it catch squid, which are its primary food source.

I suppose someone from Marine Fisheries collected the animal. It wasn’t there when I went on my afternoon excursion down the beach.

The whale had a large gash on its head. I had guessed that it had been cut by teh propeller of a boat, which had mortally wounded the whale. It had then staggered in closer to shore, hoping that coming closer to shore would keep the sharks at at distance.

But then I began to wonder about the dolphins. Perhaps the dolphins had been attracted to the whale’s distress cries and had come to its aid. Maybe they hadn’t bunched up a shoal of bait fish against the beach after all.  Perhaps the propeller had damaged the whale’s melon, and it couldn’t find its way back to deeper water. Or maybe its brain was damaged, and it went to shore to die. The dolphins could have been trying to lead the whale back to deeper water.

My suspicions were furth substantiated when I read about this Indo-Pacific bottlenosed dolphin in New Zealand. This dolphin had helped a female pygmy sperm whale and her calf that came to close to the shore. The dolphin guided the whales back away from the beach and into deeper water. Perhaps that was what the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins were doing that day in North Carolina.

So a pygmy sperm whale is the most interesting thing I’ve found on the beach. It’s not the Montauk Monster, but it was far more interesting.

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