Whale questions

From: Phil Clapham (phillip.clapham@noaa.gov)
Date: Tue Oct 09 2001 - 10:15:16 EDT

Hi kids!

Thanks for the great questions!
> >From Anuj and Max: What is your theory about how whales evolved? Why > do you think they divided in to two groups?
Whales evolved from land animals that were probably about the size of a
large dog. This all started around 60 million years ago. I would guess
that the land animals started to spend more and more time in the water
to take advantage of the food there, and maybe also to get away from
predators on land. They gradually evolved adaptations that made it much
easier to live in the water (like tails, flippers, blubber and the
ability to dive for long periods). As for why there are two groups...
not sure, but usually these things happen because there is what we call
a "niche" in the ecosystem. This means some part of the ecosystem which
has food or other resources in it that can be exploited by animals with
the right adaptations. So the baleen whales developed the ability to
take advantage of the most adundant food in the ocean, small fish and
zooplankton. The toothed whales went after prey that was usually
larger, and they developed different adaptations to go with this.

> What was your first experience with whales? How do narwhals get their
> horns?
I was standing on a beach on Cape Cod in 1980 when I saw a humpback
whale breach (jump). Right after that I volunteered for a small
research institution and that's how I got started with whales.

A narwhal's horn is actually a single tooth, and it's usually called a
tusk. It is only males that have these, and they are probably used for
fighting. Interestingly, once in a very long while you find a narwhal
with two tusks; for some strange reason, these double-tuskers are
usually female. Given that females don't have a tusk at all, this is
very odd and no one has been able to explain it.

> >From Denzel and George B.: What do you like most about whales? How did you
> become interested in whales and when? What is your favorite type of whale
> and why? Are you originally from Scotland or the US? How many whales have
> you seen?
I just love being around whales. They're beautiful animals and they're
very interesting. I love the way they move through the water, and I
love their huge size. I first became interested in whales when I saw
one (see above). I like humpback whales the best because I know them
very well, but also because they are a lot of fun to be around - they're
often curious and come over to boats, and they do some really
interesting things. I'm originally from England, but came here 21 years
ago. And I don't know how many whales I've seen, but it's many

> >From Erin and Ashley: How many blue whales have you researched? Have you
> seen more male or female whales? Where did you first see whales?
I don't see blue whales very much because they dont live off the east
coast of the U.S. where I am. I have seen them off Greenland and also
off Canada, and many off California. I've probably seen only about
sixty or so blue whales in my life. It's difficult to tell male and
female whales apart, but since the sex ratio in whale populations is
even I'm sure I've seen about the same number of males as females. I
first saw whales on Cape Cod (see above).

> >From Ben W. and Ben L.: How did baleen whales get baleen?
This isn't clear. Baleen evolved very early (millions of years ago),
and it's made of the same substance - keratin - as our fingernails and
hair. It acts like a huge strainer, with fine hair on the inside of the
baleen plates which filter prey from the water (which gets pushed out of
the mouth through the baleen). The first baleen whales evolved from
toothed whales, so they presumably lost their teeth somewhere along the
way. But quite how this happened isn't clear.

> >From Rachel and Laura N.: What do whales think about if anything? What is
> your favorite whale to research and why?
I really dont know what whales think about! Most scientists would
probably say that toothed whales are smarter than baleen whales, and
this is quite common in animals which hunt cooperatively rather than
"graze" (as baleen whales do). So toothed whales may think rather more
"deeply" than baleen whales, but we honestly don't know. Favorite
whale: the humpback - see above.

Good luck, I hope this helps!


The Society for Marine Mammalogy will be holding its 14th Biennial
Conference from 28 November to 3 December 2001, in Vancouver, BC.  Visit
the conference Web site at www.smmconference.org for full details of
this important meeting.

Phillip J. Clapham, Ph.D. Large Whale Biology Program Protected Species Branch Northeast Fisheries Science Center 166 Water Street Woods Hole, MA 02543, U.S.A.

tel. 508 495-2316 fax 508 495-2066 email: phillip.clapham@noaa.gov

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