Whale Tales – Current Cetacean Communiqués

Orcas as captured by drone surveillance. Photo credit: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium.

There’s been a couple interesting whale-centric stories I’ve come across lately, so I thought I would share on the blog.

While the idea of drone surveillance is proving to make a large part of the public uncomfortable, the technology is proving to have less pernicious applications in observing natural phenomena.

Southern resident orca calf nursing. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium.

With regards to whales, drone footage of southern resident orca pods has recently been captured by a collaborative effort between the Vancouver Aquarium and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).  NOAA recently released beautiful close-up photos and a video conversation with ecologist John Durban giving some additional context to the what the drone captured.

Over more recent years with advances in genetics and stronger observational data, it was determined that orcas are not a uniform species and instead vary with regards to morphological characteristics, ecology, and behavior, generally referred to as “ecotypes”. The southern resident population of killer whales numbers about 81 individuals. Aerial footage provides a relatively non-invasive way to study and collect data on these animals.

Read more about the study and about “mobly”, the hexacopter used to study these creatures, here.

Another fascinating footage find was this picture posted of an albino southern right whale calf off the coast of South Africa:

Anton Schutte was alerted to its presence by a tourist he had recently befriended and was able to snap pictures and video of the blindingly white baby whale.

Omura’s whale lunge feeding. Photo Credit: Cerchio et al 2015.

Lastly, Discover Magazine released an interesting news bit based on a recently published paper about the Omura’s whale. This whale wasn’t classified as its own species until 2003, and was described based off of samples from carcasses that had washed onto beaches. Scientists spotted living populations off of Madagascar and were able to genetically validate the sighting as Omura’s whales. Surveys were completed over a course of 7 years in order to learn about their ecology and behavior.  They have rorqual pleats like those seen in humpbacks, that allow them to “lunge feed” – quickly engulfing large masses of water and using their baleen to assist with filtering out their prey items. They sport an asymmetrical white patch on their lower jaw, much like Fin whales. They also likely do not wander far from their home base.

Hope you enjoyed the updates. Until next time my friends!

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A Vast Solar System: To Scale

I adore those simple science-based moments where someone gets me to stop and exclaim “huh”… Maybe it’s an upset of pervasively incorrect ideas about how the world works (See Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich’s fervently amused post regarding the true supposition that trees get most of their mass from air rather than the ground), or just a mild re-positioning of the nuances to how we see things.

Apparently all those beautiful little models of spangly little planets in orbit around one another are overwhelmingly flawed. Not surprisingly, if everything were to scale, the planets would both be greatly farther apart and almost microscopic in appearance relative to how they are often depicted. While I was aware of the need to bend some of these rules in order to allow us to develop a reasonable mental model of the solar system, I don’t think I would have appreciated the reality without a little help.

Luckily, filmmakers Wylie Overstreet and Alex Gorosh have filled that void by creating an elegant little video where they model the real relative sizes and distances of our planets  in the desert (albeit while Pluto was demoted to “not a planet”). Watch below and ruminate while we all rotate on this pale blue dot: