Friday, August 9, 2013

Fun Friday Facts #81: Whales

I decided to write about whales today because I reminded myself yesterday how much I like them. Once, years ago, I was standing on the beach in California, looking out at the sea, when a whale of some kind breached and then showed its flukes. I’m not sure what kind of whale it was, I’m not a cetologist. I made some kind of remark about how you can't pay to see something like that, meaning that I felt the experience was priceless, by my jackass boyfriend at the time, the Redheaded Banjo Player Whom I Promised I’d Never Write About, made some snarky remark about how I would say that, meaning that I’m greedy and place to much importance on money. That was him projecting, of course, because I had money and he did not and this injustice was a source of much outrage for him.


Last week, paleontologists from the Calvert Marine Museum in Southern Maryland excavated the six foot (1.83 meter), 1,000 pound (453.6 kg) fossilized skull of an extinct baleen whale. The skull is 15 million years old, according to collections manager John Nance.

The skull was found in cliffs along the edge of the Potomac, where some of the world’s only fossils from the Miocene epoch, 5 to 23 million years ago, are found. The rest of the whale’s skeleton remains embedded in the cliff. Nance told The Washington Post that to find such a complete whale fossil was “pretty uncommon.”

Millions of years ago, the ancestors of whales lived on land. The Pakicetus was the most primitive whale. It was about the size of a dog and looked like one, too:

Image credit: Nobu Tamura

It lived about 50 million years ago, was carnivorous and drank fresh water.

About 49 million years ago, the Ambulocetus natans, an amphibious ancestor of the whale, emerged. The first whales without legs appeared 48 to 35 million years ago.

Whales are mammals, as half the Internet pointed out to me once when I referred to them as fish. I knew that they were mammals, of course, I was just checking to see if you were paying attention. Half of you were.

Because they’re mammals, they can’t become unconscious, or they’ll drown. This means that whales sleep with only half of their brain at a time. This way they can use the other half to keep breathing and stuff.

Whales occupy a prominent place in the world’s mythologies. One Icelandic legend tells of a man who blocked the blowhole of a whale with a stone, and caused the whale to burst. The man was forbidden to go to sea for 20 years, which must have been an awful punishment for someone from Iceland (I guess?), because in the 19th year he couldn’t hold back any longer, and went to sea anyway. A whale killed him.

That's what you get.
Image credit: Whit Welles

Neurological studies of the brains of whales have found that they possess spindle neurons previously found only in hominid species. In humans, these cells perform social and emotional functions, including the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others and to understand that others may have mental states, beliefs, intentions, and desires different from one’s own. These cells are also implicated in the ability to form judgments. Evidence suggests that they perform similar functions in the brains of whales.