Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The big'un

The other whale at the Long Marine Lab is a Blue (Balaenoptera musculus). It's an 87-footer. The longest known Blue Whale was 110 feet long, so despite its size, the one shown here is only 4/5 the size of the biggest individuals.

Here, at last, is something to stun even a sauropod worker. Check out this picture of Nick standing inside its jaws, and compare to the similar shot with the Gray Whale in the previous post. The Gray Whale could pass through the jaws of the Blue and not even scrape the sides.

Nick gave me an interesting perspective on how these big whales feed. They're not really filter feeders. A true filter feeder is something like a Basking Shark that just swims around with its mouth open and strains out whatever comes through. The big baleen whales pick their targets and engulf them with their giant jaws and extensible mouth/throat region. They are often feeding on swarms of krill that measure kilometers in extent. Rather than think of big whales as filter feeders, we should think of them as predators that take bites off of superorganisms that are hundreds of times larger. The fact that the krill are strained out of the water by the baleen is a matter of processing--it comes after the whale has taken a bite. Here Nick is measuring the mandibles, as part of a study on this very subject.

The size of the rib cage is staggering. As Nick pointed out in a recent joint talk that we gave at Berkeley, a 100-foot Blue Whale is approximately the same size as a Boeing 737, in both length and girth. So the next time you're on a 737 or equivalent, have a look around--you could be in the belly of a whale.

This one isn't that big, but still large enough to fit me inside with lots of room to spare. It is worth recalling that Elmer Riggs named the type species of Brachiosaurus altithorax in reference to a seven-foot rib, which was at that time the longest of any known sauropod. We didn't measure any of the ribs, but they're a darn sight longer than seven feet.

If you ever have the chance to go whale-watching, do it. I've been three times, all of them trips from Monterey into Monterey Bay. I've been fortunate in that I've seen new and bigger whales every time I've gone out. The first time we tailed a pod of half a dozen Gray Whales. It was just mind-blowing how big they were. Despite my derrogation of the Gray in the previous post, it is one thing to stand next to a skeleton and another thing entirely to see the animal in the flesh. It's a feeling that I always get when I'm around horses. They are just huge animals, way outside the human scale in terms of mass and strength. Multiply that by a thousand or so and you will know what it's like to see a Gray Whale in the flesh.

The second time I went out, we followed a momma Humpback Whale and her calf, which was about 2/3 grown. The Humpback was significantly larger than the Grays. But it didn't hold a candle to the Blue Whale that I saw the most recent time. From seeing the Grays and the Humpbacks, I had a feeling for how long it takes a whale to 'roll over' when it comes up and then goes back down. The Blue Whale blasted my expectation. It was almost stomach-turningly immense. After it spouted it would nose down and its back would break the surface in a long curve as it headed back down. But the back just kept coming, more and more whale emerging from the water until your mind rebelled: No living thing could possibly be that big. And yet it is.

These experiences have only sharpened my hopeless desire to see a sauropod in the flesh. What have saurichians come to?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

You saw a blue whale in the Monterey Bay? I had no idea they came around here.


4:38 PM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Yeah, evidently there is a big group of them that comes into Monterey Bay every summer. The constant upwelling from the bottom of the canyon keeps enough food on the buffet table to support them, as well as all the other whales, dolphins, sea lions, fish, birds, etc. Pretty remarkable place, when you consider that on a clear day I see right across it, 26 straight-line miles to Monterey. It's the Serengeti of the ocean, it's right out my front door, and it's so easy to not see it.

4:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I gotta get me on a whale-watchin' boat this summer.


6:31 PM  

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