Sometimes, even the mightiest lose the battle! Similar is the story of the whales, most of whom are among the largest of animals on Earth. Whales are apex predators and play a critical role in maintaining the marine environment’s overall health. Yet, the risk of extinction looms over several whale species in recent decades.
Every year, on February 20, the world comes together to celebrate Whale Day and remind us of the challenges that these creatures are facing to thrive on this planet. To get better acquainted with these mammals, here are some fun facts that are sure to blow your mind away!
The earliest whales were land-dwelling
Scientists believe that whales first marked their presence on Earth around 50 million years ago. In fact, last year, Egyptian palaeontologists unearthed a 43-million-year-old fossil of a four-legged whale that walked on land and swam in the vast oceans. The fossil belonged to a member of protocetidae—an extinct group of species similar to whales that lived during the Eocene epoch between 56 million and 33.9 million years ago.
Extant whales are classified into two types
Whales are classified into two types: toothed and baleen. As the name suggests, toothed whales have teeth, which they use to hunt and feed on their prey. Toothed whales include sperm whales, beaked whales and dolphins! Yes, you read it right. Even dolphins!
Whales are helping us fight climate change
How? With their poop! The iron-rich faeces create favorable conditions for phytoplankton’s growth—the tiny plants in the ocean that pull carbon from the atmosphere while producing oxygen. Estimates suggest that marine phytoplankton produce 50 to 85 per cent of the oxygen we breathe and captures around 40 per cent of the planet’s CO2 produced, which is four times the amount entrapped by the Amazon rainforest!
A study conducted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also revealed that an average great whale sequesters 33 tons (about 29,937 kilos) of CO2 during its lifetime as against an average tree that absorbs up to 48 pounds (21 kg) of CO2 a year . When these animals die, the carbon either becomes fuel for deep-sea ecosystems or gets incorporated into marine sediments deep within the ocean bed.
Humpback whales fast for several months
Fasting allows the humpbacks to invest their entire energy into their marathon migration and reproduction. Therefore, a humpback whale, while traveling long distances, lives off its fat reserve for 5-7.5 months of the year. After returning to Antarctica from their tropical breeding grounds, they actively feed on krills for around 22 hours of the day!
Bubble blowing to trap their prey
Humpback whales and Bryde Whales are known to trap their prey using a behavior called bubble-net feeding. One whale will typically initiate the process by exhaling out of its blowhole. On seeing the individual, the other members of the school will blow more bubbles and encircle their prey. The prey is unable to overcome the bubble barrier and eventually fall prey to the trick.
A whale’s tail is the key to identifying individuals
Like human fingerprints or tiger stripes, each whale’s tail is unique. The underside of a whale’s fluke (its tail) may have scarring, barnacles, notches, patterns and shapes that help to tell individuals apart. And this is how scientists identify them.
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