Marine Animals: Right Whale

Old sailors can be blunt, but honest. If you were to ask a whaler in the 1800s which species of whale they were after, their answer would likely be the “right” one.

North Atlantic Right Whale, image from: https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/mammals/North_Atlantic_right_whale/

The common name of Eubalaena glacialis, the North Atlantic Right Whale, can be traced back to its high value as a target of whaling ships. Right whales were considered to be the ideal species to hunt because of their high blubber content, which makes them float after being killed, and because Right Whales commonly swim close to shore at slow speed. Oil and baleen were the primary reasons Right Whales were hunted. Whale oil was used as fuel for lamps or for producing soap. Baleen are bristle-like projections found in the mouth of some whales. The bristles are made of keratin, like your fingernails, and allow the whale to filter tiny organisms out of seawater. Baleen was used in a number of ways as a rigid but pliable frame for umbrellas, folding fans, or women’s corsets. Whaling massively depleted populations of Right Whale in the North Atlantic, and this species has been considered endangered since 1970.

A family stands in front of the carcass of a Right Whale at Kyuquot Whaling Station, 1918. Image from: http://wildwhales.org/speciesid/whales/right-whale/

Right whales can grow to be 52 feet long and weigh 70 tons. Their bodies are stout and black, lacking a dorsal fin. Their most striking features are patterns of rough skin on their heads called callosites. Callosite patterns on Right Whales are unique, like a fingerprint, and often appear white because they are covered in small crustaceans that feed on the whale’s skin. The diet of Right Whales consists primarily of zooplankton and copepods, which they filter out of the water with baleen. Right whales are acrobatic; they are known to breach, launching themselves into the air and returning to the water with a tremendous splash.

This has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

Featured image from: NOAA

Authors: Jocelyn Kmiecik and Zachary Richards

Contributing Professor: Dr. Lisa Campbell

Editor: James M. Fiorendino

Marine Animals: Atlantic Puffin

This is Jim Fiorendino, your host for On the Ocean. The Atlantic Puffin, Fratercula arctica, is the official bird of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada as well as a major draw for birdwatchers in the North Atlantic. These arctic avians stand just under a foot tall, with a bright white face and belly and glossy black coloration on their forehead, neck, and back. Their beaks are their most striking feature; viewed from the side, the beak is wide and triangular. Close to the head, the beak is grey, while the tips are bright orange. These two areas of the beak are separated by a yellow ridge. The dimensions of the beak are indicative of the age of an Atlantic puffin.

The striking colors of the Atlantic Puffin’s beak. Photo by: Fred Yost, USFWS, https://www.outerplaces.com/science/item/18238-atlantic-puffin-fluorescent-beaks

Atlantic puffins feed primarily on fish, but are known to eat shrimp, crustaceans, molluscs, and worms. Much like penguins, puffins can fly through the water using their flippers to propel them, remaining underwater for up to a minute. Puffins will swallow small fish as they swim, but commonly hold larger fish in their beaks, using their tongues and serrations along their beaks to secure their prey.

Atlantic puffins spend much of their lives alone at sea, returning to land in large colonies to mate. Mating occurs in the spring for Atlantic puffins; they return to the same place they were hatched. Atlantic Puffins tend to be monogamous, and once they have found a mate, or reunited with their mate from the previous year, they work together to build a burrow where they will lay their eggs and raise their offspring, called pufflings. Parents take turns hunting for fish to feed the pufflings.

A baby puffin, or puffling, born at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. https://cbsbaltimore.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/puffin.jpg?w=1024&h=576&crop=1

Atlantic puffins are classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The biggest threats to Atlantic puffins currently include human interference, pollution of marine environments, and climate change. Rising temperatures and tourists may interrupt the timing of both the return of Atlantic puffins to their nesting places, and the spawning of fish, leaving Atlantic puffins without an important food source they rely on during their mating period.

A puffin with a beak full of fish. Photo by Sunil Gopalan, National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/proof/2017/10/puffin-photo-contest-animal-scotland-spd/#/_01-puffin.jpg

This has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

Cover image: Richard Bartz, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_puffin#/media/File:Papageitaucher_Fratercula_arctica.jpg

Script Authors: Krista Barentine and Cody Padlo

Editor: James M. Fiorendino

Contributing Professor: Dr. Lisa Campbell

Marine Animals: Sperm Whale

The famous novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville recounts the tale of Captain Ahab and his quest for revenge against the great whale that bit off his leg on a previous voyage. The whale in this story is likely based on sightings by whalers of the star of today’s show, the sperm whale.

The fictional whale of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was likely based on a real white sperm whale, Mocha Dick, that destroyed 20 whaling shapes and managed to elude an additional 80 before finally being killed. Image from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/real-life-whale-inspired-moby-dick-180965282/

The sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus, is the largest of the toothed whales. Their most distinguishing trait is their enormous, squarish heads that account for around one third of their body length. Their dorsal and pectoral fins are quite small when compared to the size of their bodies, with the dorsal fins often rounded. These whales are dark grey in color, with white patches on their underside. They have between 20 and 26 teeth set in a narrow jaw. Sperm whales can be found globally in deep water, from the equator to high latitude regions.

Waters inhabited by sperm whales. Image from: NOAA, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/sperm-whale

Sperm whales dive to catch their food, commonly achieving depths of 2000 feet where they remain for around 45 minutes. While diving, sperm whales hunt for large animals like squid, sharks, and fish. They return to the surface to breath and rest in between dives, usually for around nine minutes.

Sperm whales were once heavily targeted by whaling ships for ambergris and spermaceti. Ambergris is a waxy grey substance produced in the digestive system of whales to coat hard sharp objects eaten by the whale, such as squid beaks. It was highly valued as a component of perfumes in the past. Spermaceti is produced by the spermaceti organ in the heads of sperm whales, which may contain as much as 1900 liters of spermaceti. This substance was sought for use as a lubricant and in cosmetics.  For sperm whales, spermaceti may alter the whale’s buoyancy as it dives, help to focus echoes and clicks in the whale’s echolocation, or cushion the head in some way.

A wax candle made of spermaceti, and a bottle of spermaceti oil. Image from: http://www.marinebio.net/marinescience/06future/whimg/9830.jpg

This has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

Cover image from: NOAA, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/sperm-whale

Script Authors: Christian Sustaya and Juan Saavedra

Editor: James M. Fiorendino

Contributing Professor: Dr. Lisa Campbell

Marine Animals: Gray Whales

Gray whales are some of the greatest travelers in the oceans. Each year, gray whales migrate from North Pacific waters to equatorial waters off the coast of Mexico, a journey of over 10,000 miles that begins in the fall. The whales spend the winter months in warm waters where they breed before returning north in May. The gestation period of gray whales is around 12 months; mothers give birth every two to three years to a single calf, usually between fourteen and sixteen feet long and weighing as much as 2000 pounds. Gray whales can grow to lengths of 50 feet, weighting up to 90,000 pounds. They have a hump on their back, followed by a series of small bumps or knuckles along a ridge on their dorsal side. Their tail fins can be 10 feet wide, with a deep notch in the middle.

Grey Whale distribution. Image from NOAA, https://cdn2.webdamdb.com/1280_ekZ5ZtQYnwRm.png?1508259319

Gray Whales were called “friendly whales” in the seventies because of their curiosity and willingness to approach small boats. Their congeniality and curiosity may have put them at risk, as they were nearly hunted to extinction by commercial whaling in the 20th century. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 offered protections to the Gray Whale, and by 1994 the eastern North Pacific population of Gray Whales was determined to have successfully recovered. The western population of Gray Whales remains below 200 individuals today. Today, the greatest threats to Gray Whales include entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships, and noise pollution. Noise from ships and other activities confuses Gray Whales and can alter their migration patterns, or even cause strandings on beaches. Additionally, shifts in temperature due to climate change and overfishing are forcing whales to travel farther to find food.

This has been On the Ocean, a program made possible by the Department of Oceanography and a production of KAMU-FM on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. For more information and links, please go to ocean.tamu.edu and click On the Ocean.

Script Authors: Kelsey Gibbons and Kayla Ponder

Editor: James M. Fiorendino

Contributing Professor: Dr. Lisa Campbell

Cover Image: NOAA, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/gray-whale