Subject: fat whales, fossils, and favorites
> From Mike M. and Sam: Why are porpoises so fat compared to other
> What does the new species of beaked whale look like and what is it
> When you attach a camera to a "critter" where do you put it?
Compared to right whales porpoises are actually quite slender! The most
slender dolphin is the Northern Right-whale Dolphin (which is not a
right whale, but it is called that because it does not have a dorsal
fin, like a right whale). The fattest dolphin is probably the Dall's
porpoise (porpoises are in the super-family Delphinoidea). The most
slender whale is the blue whale, with the fin and Bryde's whales (also
in the family Balaenopteridae) similarly shaped. The fattest whale is
the Bowhead whale (which is in the family of right whales, Balaenidae).
The reason for 'fatness' has much to do with the physical nature of
their environment. Cold water conducts body heat away rather quickly. A
more rotund and fat animal has less surface area per body weight in
contact with the water than a narrow and thin animal. Consequently, the
fat animal can conserve body heat more effectively than a thin one. In
very cold environments (like the Arctic) the animals tend to be fatter
than their tropical counter parts. For example, Bowhead whales and
Belugas are fatter than Bryde's whales and spinner dolphins. Similarly,
a round house like a geodesic dome is more energy efficient than a
sprawling ranch-style house.
The new beaked whale is called Mesoplodon perrini, named after Dr.
William H. Perrin. It looks very much like other beaked whales in the
genus Mesoplodon, especially Mesoplodon hectori. If you would like a
picture of it, I can send one along in another email.
Originally we tried to put the critter cam on the middle of the back of
the whale, just behind the blowhole. We discovered later on (and by
accident) that we got more information by placing it on the side below
the dorsal fin. In the previous placement we got great shots of the
animal's blowhole, but that was about it. On the side we could see what
the whale's companions were doing which was more valuable information
for our studies.
> From Zoe and Jaclyn: Have you ever been knocked out by a whale and if
> how did it feel? Could you give us some information on the new species
> beak whale? What exactly is inside the melon of a whale? Why do Harbor
> Porpoises stay so close to shore?
'Never been knocked out by a whale. Almost by an Elephant Seal once,
and I was bitten by a Hooded Seal once.
See above regarding the new whale.
The melon is a fatty structure. The melon of a sperm whale is filled
with a fatty substance that is liquid at room temperature with the
consistency of Elmer's glue. The purpose of the melon is to manipulate
the sounds generated from the tapping of a bit of cartilage against the
skull at the nares. Some researchers have theorized that the melon is
also involved in buoyancy in deep-diving whales.
The water is shallower close to shore. Harbor seals feed on fish and
squid that do not live in deep water. So, the porpoises stay around
where their food is.
> From Julia and Stacy: How old were you when you first started to draw?
> What is your favorite whale to draw and why? Have you ever adopted a
> and if so, what was his/her name?
I made my first whale drawing at the age of 9. My third grade had taken
a field trip to a place called Pyramid Hill to look at fossils and
learn about geology. Following that experience I asked my mother if I
could have my birthday party at Pyramid Hill looking for fossil sharks
teeth. I found a 13.5 million year old sperm whale. Later that year I
started drawing pictures of what I thought the whale might have looked
like in life.
I enjoy 'reconstructing' ancient/extinct whales from fossil material.
It is like bringing these critters back to life, at least in a manner
that we can appreciate what they looked like in life.
I have never adopted a whale, but, being a researcher in the field, we
come across whales that have not been identified before for the whale
ID catalogs. We often give the animals names so they are easier to
recognize and talk about when seen in future encounters. Last year we
found a trio of young humpbacks feeding together. I named them after my
kids, Arend and Alysen, and their friend Ariana.
> From Ben and Traylor: What did you see with the cameras on the
> that was so surprising?
We had theorized that whales use their flippers to "flash" prey.
Critter Cam confirmed this. Most surprising was evidence that the
whales are not all that friendly when feeding. We documented quite a
bit of agonist (struggle and competition) behavior. The whales would
deliberately bump and hit each other.
> From Raquel and Jackie: How do you attach a camera to a sea "critter"?
> What is your favorite species of whale and why?
We use a suction device which includes a rubber disk and a scuba tank
that sucks rather than releases air. The device is placed over the
whale, the tank turned on, and the camera is sucked down on the whale.
My favorite is diversity. What I mean is that the most fascinating and
wonderful thing about all the whales is that there are so many
different types, doing different things, and living in different
places. If I were to identify one, I'd say the Vaquita (Phocoena
sinus). This small porpoise is neglected and very endangered. My
company is called "A Higher Porpoise DG" and we use a picture of a
Vaquita in the logo.
> From Andrew and John: What types of critters do you attach cameras to
> what have you learned from doing this?
I only work on the Humpback Whale Critter Cam team, though I have
contributed a little to the Blue Whale and Brown Bear Teams. Critter
Cam has been deployed on several dozen different animals including
penguins, sea turtles, seals, sea lions, and killer whales. You can see
these on the National Geographic Society cable channel next year in
their series 'CritterCam Chronicles.' You can also go to the NGS web
site and search for Critter Cam for more information.
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