Jan 27

#LoveSpecies nominee: sperm whale

Nominated by: Ocean Alliance

Why do you love it?

Sperm whales might not be as beautiful as some of their cousins, but they are enormously charismatic animals of immense power and grace, grafted into our legends and folklore through stories such as Moby Dick. When a sperm whales dives, it is descending to the deep, dark depths of our oceans: an alien world at the boundaries of human understanding. They are true Olympians of the natural world: the largest toothed predator to have ever existed on our planet, the largest brain of any animal ever and currently the loudest animal alive. We know of only one species which can dive as deep, for as long a period of time. Through their role in ocean food webs, we also know that sperm whales actually slow climate change!

What are the threats to sperm whales?

Whales in our oceans today face more threats than ever before. One of the biggest problems with studying sperm whales is that they live far out in the open ocean, far from land, and so it is almost impossible to tell exactly how their population is faring. Sperm whales face a particular risk from chemical pollution owing to the dual effects of bio-accumulation and bio-magnification. Most mammals, including humans and sperm whales, find it difficult to get rid of toxicants which enter their bodies, and over time these toxicants accumulate, a process known as bio-accumulation. Bio-magnification is a term which describes how doses of toxicants increase significantly each step up a food chain. As long-lived apex predators, sperm whales thus face a particular risk from these two processes.

As animals reliant on sound for finding food and communicating with other sperm whales, the impacts of an increasingly noisy ocean (owing to increases in human-caused sounds such as shipping, military sonar and seismic exploration) are to likely cause significant stress for sperm whales. Other threats include climate change, bycatch in fishing lines/nets and ship strikes.

What are you doing to save it?

Ocean Alliance has been working to protect whales and their ocean environment since 1971. After commercial whaling ended, our founder and president, Dr. Roger Payne, predicted that chemical pollution would replace the whalers harpoon as the greatest threat to whales. In response to this, from 2000-2005 Ocean Alliance carried out the Voyage of the Odyssey, a 5 ½ year research expedition which collected the first ever baseline data on pollution in our oceans from every major ocean basin using a single indicator species: sperm whales.

More recently, our efforts have switched to using drones to study whales. We believe that rapid recent advances in drone technology will create a new generation of powerful, cost-effective, non-invasive tools that will allow us to increase our understanding of whales, and how we might protect them, at a time when they need this desperately.

VOTE NOW!

Link to sperm whale species profile

Jun 12

Last weekend marked World Oceans Day, a day dedicated to celebrating the beauty and bounty that our oceans provide, and raising awareness of the importance of protecting them. Here at ARKive, we’ve been inspired by the watery realm, and thought we’d honour our fellow mammals by submerging ourselves in the wonderful world of whales and dolphins.

Winged whale

Humpback whale image

An instantly recognisable species, the humpback whale is named for the distinctive ‘hump’ formed by its back as it prepares to dive. Its long flippers, another characteristic feature, can grow up to five metres in length, and contribute to this vocal cetacean’s scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae, which means ‘big-winged New Englander’.

Marine misnomer

Orca image

Orcas are easily distinguishable by their striking black and white markings and their imposing, triangular dorsal fin. Interestingly, these fascinating marine mammals have a rather misleading alternative name – killer whales. While they are certainly efficient predators, they are not whales and are, in fact, the largest members of the dolphin family. Orcas usually hunt in pods, although individuals from some populations are known to deliberately beach themselves in order to snatch sea lions resting on the beach before wriggling back to sea with their prey.

Social cetacean

Dusky dolphin image

The charismatic dusky dolphin is a highly social species, sometimes being found in pods of over 1,000 individuals and frequently associating with other cetacean species. This beautiful marine mammal is said to be one of the most acrobatic of all dolphins, often making energetic leaps out of the water and performing impressive tumbles in the air.

Underwater unicorn

Narwhal image

There’s no mistaking the unique narwhal, a species famed for the hugely elongated tooth or ‘tusk’ which protrudes from its upper lip. The longest of these incredible appendages was recorded at over 2.5 metres in length, and the males use these bodily weapons in jousting bouts. The narwhal is found throughout the waters of the Arctic, as well as in the northern Atlantic Ocean, and it tends to stay close to pack ice.

Cerebral cetaceans

Bottlenose dolphin image

Quite possibly the most famous of all cetaceans, the bottlenose dolphin is much-loved by many. This extremely intelligent species is highly social, and uses a wide range of clicks and whistles to communicate with other members of its pod. Like some other species of cetacean, the bottlenose dolphin seeks out prey using echolocation, and individuals in a pod will work together as a team to round up schools of fish into tight balls upon which the dolphins can feed. When not chasing prey or performing impressive leaps, dolphins are able to rest one side of their brain at a time. This allows them to sleep while remaining conscious enough to surface and breathe.

Moby Dick

Sperm whale image

The strange-looking sperm whale can be forgiven for having such a bulbous head, given that it has the largest and heaviest brain of any living animal! And its record-breaking statistics don’t stop there – capable of diving for up to two hours at a time, the sperm whale can dive to depths of 3,000 metres, making it the deepest-diving mammal. The largest of the toothed whales, the sperm whale is famed in literature as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but sadly it is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, primarily as a result of historic and present-day hunting.

Sea scars

Risso's dolphin image

A somewhat unusual-looking mammal, Risso’s dolphin can be identified by its long, pointed flippers, bulbous, beakless head, and the conspicuous scars present all over its body. These markings are thought to be caused by bites from other individuals of its kind during playing or fighting, but some scars could be the result of squid bites.

White whale

Beluga whale image

Although it is also known as the white whale, the beluga whale is actually born with dark grey to bluish- or brownish-grey colouration, only achieving the striking white hue as it matures. It is one of just a few cetaceans with a flexible neck, and it is capable of pursing its lips to suck up prey. The beluga whale is sometimes referred to as the sea canary because of the high-pitched twittering noises it produces.

On the brink

Baiji image

The baiji, or Yangtze River dolphin, is a very shy and graceful freshwater dolphin species with a very long, narrow, slightly upturned beak and small eyes placed high on the face. Sadly, it is thought that the Critically Endangered baiji could actually now be extinct. In 1999, only four individuals of its kind were observed, and an intensive search of its range in 2006 resulted in none being seen. The major threats to the baiji are considered to be illegal fishing using electricity, and being caught as bycatch in fishing nets.

Ocean giant

Blue whale image

We couldn’t possibly finish this round-up of ten incredible cetaceans without including the biggest of them all – the blue whale! The biggest animal to have ever lived, the blue whale has a heart the size of a small car and is capable of eating more than 4 tonnes of krill per day during the summer months. Whereas some cetacean species communicate using a series of high-pitched clicks and whistles, the blue whale produces a variety of low-frequency sounds, which may also serve the purpose of sensing the environment and detecting prey.

Is your favourite whale or dolphin not featured here? Then why not comment below to let us know what it is and why you love it!

If you’re looking for a fun challenge, check out ARKive’s ocean-themed scavenger hunt – there may well be a few cetaceans hidden in there!

Find out more about whale and dolphin conservation:

Kathryn Pintus, ARKive Text Author

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