Back to the Deep, Part 2

(Via: Best-Diving.org)
(Via: Best-Diving.org)

Common Name: Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises

A.K.A.:  Order Cetacea

Vital Stats:

  • While the lifespan of most whale species is unknown, evidence indicates bowhead whales can reach ages of around 200 years.
  • Sexual maturity in whales occurs at around 7-10 years of age.

Found: Throughout the world’s oceans, save the very northernmost regions

WhaleMap

It Does What?!

Last time, we looked at how whales evolved from a deer-like creature the size of a housecat into the aquatic behemoths they are today. This week, we’ll cover a couple of the odds and ends of whale weirdness.

One important thing to understand about evolution – particularly in cases of a major habitat shift, as we see in whales – is that it’s not an orderly or “well-thought out” process. A good analogy is to think of an old building that’s being renovated and rewired. New additions may be built onto old structures and new wiring overlaid on old plans, creating a product very different, and often much less efficient, from what would have been created were a new building made from scratch. Because you have to work with what’s already there.

Whale respiration is an excellent example of this point. When the ancestors of modern cetaceans took to the water, developing gills and breathing like fish wasn’t an option, because the machinery wasn’t intact… they were already much too far down the evolutionary path of a terrestrial mammal. What they could develop were more efficient lungs and greater control over how they used them. For humans, breathing is an unconscious and largely involuntary act – it just happens, whether we think about it or not, and we can’t choose to stop doing it for very long. Even if you were to hold your breath until you passed out, you’d just start breathing again the moment you lost control (take note, parents of tantrum-prone toddlers). For whales on the other hand, respiration has become voluntary; they breathe because they choose to do so. Life underwater and the need to hunt without distraction made this ability more valuable than the safety of an involuntary mechanism.

caption (Via:)
Whale-snoring.
(Via: The Telegraph)

There is, of course, a major drawback. For whales, control over respiration came at the price of ever being able to fully fall asleep. If a cetacean were to sleep as we do, it would stop breathing and drown. As a result, they’ve evolved the ability to sleep with one brain hemisphere at a time. So while one hemisphere rests, the other is awake, one eye is open, and the whale is in motion, surfacing periodically. In fact, they appear not to experience REM sleep at all, meaning that these creatures gained their mastery of the oceans, very literally, at the cost of their dreams.

Another interesting problem during whale evolution was that of temperature regulation. Anybody who’s been swimming knows that even relatively warm water can start to give you the chills after a while, especially if you’re not expending a lot of energy. This is because water is an excellent conductor of heat, and will constantly draw warmth away from the skin’s surface. Now once you get into the sunless depths of the ocean, to say nothing of the polar oceans that many whales live in, things get very chilly very fast. To counteract this, whales have developed a thick, insulating layer of fat that holds in the heat and keeps their core body temperature from plummeting. Easy peasy, right?

But what happens when the whale expends a lot of energy, say, on an intense feeding session, and builds up too much heat? Ever shovel snow in a heavy winter coat? After a few minutes, you’re ready to tear the coat off because you’re sweating so much. Not so easy when the coat’s under your skin. Well, researchers have recently discovered what they think may be the answer to this problem.

caption (Via: National Geographic)
That’s 144 inches, in case you were wondering.
(By: Craig George, Via: National Geographic)

In the bowhead whale, which lives exclusively in frigid arctic and sub-arctic waters (and therefore has a great deal of insulation), biologists found a mysterious, twelve foot long organ positioned along the roof of the mouth, made out of what is, essentially, the same tissue found inside penises. That is to say, spongy tissue filled with a lot of blood vessels which can expand as it fills with blood. So how does a giant mouth-penis help a whale cool off? It’s quite clever, really. The brain being the major point of concern for overheating, the organ, called the corpus cavernosum maxillaris, lies directly beneath it. Hot blood is pumped into the organ, filling the spongy tissue, as the whale opens its mouth, letting in a great volume of icy water which surrounds the engorged tissue, quickly drawing off much of the heat. The cetacean equivalent of a cold shower. This cooled blood then drains from the organ and lowers the temperature around the brain.

And if this extra-penis-as-thermoregulator wasn’t cool enough, it seems to have a secondary function as well. The organ is also packed with sensitive nerve endings (naturally…), which the researchers believe the whales may use to determine the prey density in a given area (bowheads are filter feeders), helping them to decide whether to remain in a location and feed, or move on in search of better pickings.

Fun Facts:

  • The ability to “sleep” with one eye open was likely also highly valuable to the much smaller ancestors of the cetaceans, for whom predation was a bigger problem.
  • Whales have fleshy nasal plugs with which they can plug their blowholes while diving.
  • Oceanic dolphins have the highest relative brain size among extant cetaceans.

Says Who?

  • Ford et al. (2013) The Anatomical Record 296: 701-708
  • Gatesy & O’Leary (2001) Trends in Ecology and Evolution 16(10): 562-570
  • Gatesy et al. (2013) Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 66: 479-506
  • Lyamin et al. (2008) Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews 32: 1451-1484
  • Uhen (2010) Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 38: 189-219
  • Zimmer (2013) The Loom, March 4th.
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Back to the Deep, Part 1

(Via: Wikimedia Commons)
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Common Name: Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises

A.K.A.:  Order Cetacea of Class Mammalia

Vital Stats:

  • Consists of 88 living species
  • Order is divided into Odontoceti, the toothed whales (73 sp.), and Mysticeti, the baleen whales (15 sp.)
  • Odontoceti includes both dolphins and porpoises
  • The largest whale, a blue whale, can grow up to 30m (98’) in length and weigh as much as 20 elephants

Found: Throughout the world’s oceans, save the very northernmost regions

WhaleMap

It Does What?!

caption (By: Nobu Tamura, via: Wikimedia Commons)
The twenty pound vermin that went on to rule the oceans.
(By: Nobu Tamura, via: Wikimedia Commons)

Picture it: the time is just over 50 million years before the present – the early Eocene – the climate is much warmer than today, undergoing a period of rapid global warming… it is the Age of Mammals. On the shores of the tropical Tethys Sea, in what would eventually become India, a small, deer-like animal, not much larger than a housecat, wades into the water and dives briefly to retrieve a fish before returning to dry land. This has become a successful strategy for its species, avoiding competition from other mammals by eating marine life. Well-fed, the creatures reproduce rapidly, creating competition amongst themselves. Those individuals with greater lung capacity and better swimming ability catch more food, outcompeting those who don’t. Over great stretches of time, characteristics enabling speed and skill under water become more important than those enabling life on land, and selection tilts in favour of a longer, more lithe body, smaller hindlimbs, stronger forelimbs for paddling, and less fur.

caption (Via: AccessScience)
Swimming: great for a slim figure.
(Via: AccessScience)

Millions of years pass as our small hunter’s descendants eventually lose the ability to ever return to land. They have no fur now… it isn’t useful for retaining heat beneath the waves. Fat is, though, and this begins to accumulate in thicker layers under their bare skin. Their front legs are nearly inflexible at the joints, trading range of movement for strength and widening into precision rudders to control direction as they swim. In concert, the tail becomes more muscular and widens into flukes at the tip, propelling them forward powerfully with each stroke. Their back legs – unneeded – atrophy, gradually losing both size and bone structure, until the foot is completely gone. A small stub lingers for a time before the last vestigial bones simply remain inside the smooth body wall, evidence of a distant terrestrial past. The nasal opening has migrated to the top of the head for ease in surface breathing. Ten million years have passed since the scene on the shore, and we now have our first fully aquatic whale.

Of course, much still had to happen before we arrived at the whales of today. In the time since aquatic mammals first arose, a major division took place within the Cetacea. One group, the toothed whales, or Odontoceti, continued to hunt and eat fish and large marine fauna, including squid and even other whales. To aid in finding their prey, these whales developed echolocation, the use of projected sound to create an image of the surrounding area, thereby becoming the loudest mammal, with vocalisations of more than 180 decibels (a jackhammer tops out at about 120dB). The large bulge we see on the forehead of dolphins and other toothed cetaceans is an organ called a ‘melon’ (because they couldn’t think of anything more science-y sounding just then), which is thought to help direct and focus these sounds.

caption (Via: Wikimedia Commons)
Who needs teeth when you can have a broom in your mouth?
(Via: Wikimedia Commons)

Being a top-level predator isn’t very energetically efficient, though, and there isn’t always enough prey to go around. So at some point, one group of whales began to move toward a different strategy. The origins of the Mysticeti, the baleen whales, are still a bit unclear, but these animals switched from hunting large fauna to eating colossal numbers of tiny sea creatures such as krill. In order to do this, the whales lost their teeth and developed baleen in their place. Baleen is essentially a fine-toothed comb that filters small animals from the water as it passes. The whale takes a giant mouthful of water and pushes it out against the combs until only food remains. While this may seem less efficient than just grabbing a big fish and eating it, filter feeding is what allowed the largest whales to evolve to their present size. The blue whale, Balaenoptera musculus, is believed to be the largest animal which has ever existed on Earth, and it got that way eating mostly shrimp the size of your thumbnail. Amazing, isn’t it?

Now that we’ve covered how they got that way, tune in next time for part two, where we’ll explore the many weird and wonderful aspects of life as a modern whale.

Fun Facts:

  • Baleen whales still have teeth during the embryonic stage of their development, much as human fetuses briefly develop tails.
  • Toothed whales do not chew their food; it is eaten whole or torn into large pieces and swallowed. This may be related to the fact that, unlike most mammals, they have only one set of teeth.

Says Who?

  • Gatesy & O’Leary (2001) Trends in Ecology and Evolution 16(10): 562-570
  • Gatesy et al. (2013) Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 66: 479-506
  • Lyamin et al. (2008) Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews 32: 1451-1484
  • Uhen (2010) Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 38: 189-219