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

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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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Animals
Owning a Dog May Add Years to Your Life, Study Shows
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We've said that having a furry friend can reduce depression, promote better sleep, and encourage more exercise. Now, research has indicated that caring for a canine might actually extend your lifespan.

Previous studies have shown that dog owners have an innate sense of comfort and increased well-being. A new paper published in Scientific Reports and conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden looked at the health records of 3.4 million of the country's residents. These records typically include personal data like marital status and whether the individual owns a pet. Researchers got additional insight from a national dog registry providing ownership information. According to the study, those with a dog for a housemate were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or any other cause during the study's 12-year duration.

The study included adults 40 to 80 years old, with a mean age of 57. Researchers found that dogs were a positive predictor in health, particularly among singles. Those who had one were 33 percent less likely to die early than those who did not. Authors didn't conclude the exact reason behind the correlation: It could be active people are more likely to own dogs, that dogs promoted more activity, or that psychological factors like lowered incidences of depression might bolster overall well-being. Either way, having a pooch in your life could mean living a longer one.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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