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AMNH/D. Finnin

22 Things We Learned from AMNH's Whales: Giants of the Deep Exhibition

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AMNH/D. Finnin

Tomorrow, New York City's American Museum of Natural History opens up its newest exhibition, Whales: Giants of the Deep. The exhibit, which was developed and originated at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, explores whale evolution and biology, the human relationship with whales, and the history of whaling in New Zealand and beyond. It has two articulated sperm whale skeletons (one nearly 60 feet long), a life-sized replica of a blue whale heart, and numerous interactive exhibits that allow visitors to hear whale sounds, hunt like a sperm whale, and find out how whales eat. Here are just 22 things we learned from our visit. 

1. The 3-foot-long skull below is the only part of an ancient whale relative, Andrewsarchus mongoliensis, that has ever been found. (AMNH's Kan Chuen Pao made the discovery in Inner Mongolia in 1923.) This land-dwelling creature, which lived 45 million years ago, walked on all fours and probably had hooves. Photo courtesy of AMNH/R. Mickens.

2. Scientists have conducted genetic research to confirm that whales and hoofed mammals are related.

3. Another ancient whale ancestor, Ambulocetus natans, heard through its lower jawbone; sound passed through the bone into soft tissues that led to the ear.

4. The earliest known ancestor of modern whales is Pakicetus attocki. This wolf-sized creature lived about 50 million years ago near a large shallow ocean and ate fish. Photo of whale ancestors' skeletons courtesy of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

5. Whales typically mate belly to belly.

6. Male beaked whales have a tusk-like tooth; scientists use the tooth’s characteristics to determine what species of whale it is.

7. At just 5 feet long, the Hector’s dolphin—native to New Zealand—is the world’s smallest dolphin. 

8. Male sperm whales have teeth lining their lower jaws, but they don’t use them for eating—they use them for fighting. Photo courtesy of AMNH/D. Finnin.

9. Humpback whales’ flippers can grow up to 19 feet long.

10. A male sperm whale’s head can account for a third of its fully grown size—and its head is mostly nose. (They have the world’s largest.)

11. To produce sound, dolphins force air through flaps of fat and gristle called “monkey lips.” Sound goes out into the water through the fatty tissue of the forehead, called the "melon." 

12. Baleen comes in two flavors—fine and coarse—and its texture is determined by what a whale eats. Right whales, for example, have finer baleen, because they eat tiny zooplankton; Gray whales have coarser baleen, because they sift through sediment from the ocean bottom in search of crustaceans. Photo courtesy of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

13. In the ancient Middle East, ambergris—a substance produced in the intestines of sperm whales—was used as a spice.

14. Sperm whales don’t vomit up ambergris, as you may have heard. Since it's formed in the intestines, it's usually passed as fecal matter. 

15. In Māori culture, whale bones are used to make weapons, combs, and other status-signaling accessories.

16. Before he penned Moby Dick, Herman Melville hunted whales in the South Pacific. The logbook below belonged to the William Rotch, of New Bedford, Massachusetts. When the sailors spotted whales, they drew them. Photo couresty of AMNH/D. Finnin. 

17. Whalers used a tool called a mincing knife, or "Blubber slicer," to cut whale fat into thin slices for boiling into oil.

18. Sperm whales yielded the highest quality oil; it burned brightly and had no odor.

19. By the 1950s, whaling had changed dramatically—helicopters were used to spot a whale and to direct chaser ships to its location.

20. Factory ships could process a 110-ton whale in as little as 20 minutes.

21. The only global break in whale hunting was World War II.

22. The blue whale's heart weighs 1410 pounds and is large enough for a child to craw through—something they'll get to do at the exhibit, which has a full-scale model. Photo courtesy of AMNH/D. Finnin.

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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
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Animals
Scientists Discover 'Octlantis,' a Bustling Octopus City
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Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Octopuses are insanely talented: They’ve been observed building forts, playing games, and even walking on dry land. But one area where the cephalopods come up short is in the social department. At least that’s what marine biologists used to believe. Now a newly discovered underwater community, dubbed Octlantis, is prompting scientists to call their characterization of octopuses as loners into question.

As Quartz reports, the so-called octopus city is located in Jervis Bay off Australia’s east coast. The patch of seafloor is populated by as many as 15 gloomy octopuses, a.k.a. common Sydney octopuses (octopus tetricus). Previous observations of the creatures led scientists to think they were strictly solitary, not counting their yearly mating rituals. But in Octlantis, octopuses communicate by changing colors, evict each other from dens, and live side by side. In addition to interacting with their neighbors, the gloomy octopuses have helped build the infrastructure of the city itself. On top of the rock formation they call home, they’ve stored mounds of clam and scallop shells and shaped them into shelters.

There is one other known gloomy octopus community similar to this one, and it may help scientists understand how and why they form. The original site, called Octopolis, was discovered in the same bay in 2009. Unlike Octlantis, Octopolis was centered around a manmade object that had sunk to the seabed and provided dens for up to 16 octopuses at a time. The researchers studying it had assumed it was a freak occurrence. But this new city, built around a natural habitat, shows that gloomy octopuses in the area may be evolving to be more social.

If that's the case, it's unclear why such octo-cities are so uncommon. "Relative to the more typical solitary life, the costs and benefits of living in aggregations and investing in interactions remain to be documented," the researchers who discovered the group wrote in a paper published in Marine and Freshwater Behavior and Physiology [PDF].

It’s also possible that for the first time in history humans have the resources to see octopus villages that perhaps have always been bustling beneath the sea surface.

[h/t Quartz]

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This Just In
Criminal Gangs Are Smuggling Illegal Rhino Horns as Jewelry
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iStock

Valuable jewelry isn't always made from precious metals or gems. Wildlife smugglers in Africa are increasingly evading the law by disguising illegally harvested rhinoceros horns as wearable baubles and trinkets, according to a new study conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

As BBC News reports, TRAFFIC analyzed 456 wildlife seizure records—recorded between 2010 and June 2017—to trace illegal rhino horn trade routes and identify smuggling methods. In a report, the organization noted that criminals have disguised rhino horns in the past using all kinds of creative methods, including covering the parts with aluminum foil, coating them in wax, or smearing them with toothpaste or shampoo to mask the scent of decay. But as recent seizures in South Africa suggest, Chinese trafficking networks within the nation are now concealing the coveted product by shaping horns into beads, disks, bangles, necklaces, and other objects, like bowls and cups. The protrusions are also ground into powder and stored in bags along with horn bits and shavings.

"It's very worrying," Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with TRAFFIC, told BBC News. "Because if someone's walking through the airport wearing a necklace made of rhino horn, who is going to stop them? Police are looking for a piece of horn and whole horns."

Rhino horn is a hot commodity in Asia. The keratin parts have traditionally been ground up and used to make medicines for illnesses like rheumatism or cancer, although there's no scientific evidence that these treatments work. And in recent years, horn objects have become status symbols among wealthy men in countries like Vietnam.

"A large number of people prefer the powder, but there are those who use it for lucky charms,” Melville Saayman, a professor at South Africa's North-West University who studies the rhino horn trade, told ABC News. “So they would like a piece of the horn."

According to TRAFFIC, at least 1249 rhino horns—together weighing more than five tons—were seized globally between 2010 and June 2017. The majority of these rhino horn shipments originated in southern Africa, with the greatest demand coming from Vietnam and China. The product is mostly smuggled by air, but routes change and shift depending on border controls and law enforcement resources.

Conservationists warn that this booming illegal trade has led to a precipitous decline in Africa's rhinoceros population: At least 7100 of the nation's rhinos have been killed over the past decade, according to one estimate, and only around 25,000 remain today. Meanwhile, Save the Rhino International, a UK-based conservation charity, told BBC News that if current poaching trends continue, rhinos could go extinct in the wild within the next 10 years.

[h/t BBC News]

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