11 Buoyant Facts About Humpback Whales

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Humpback whales are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet. Hunted almost to extinction during the 19th and early 20th centuries, their populations are slowly recovering, and now they’re a favorite sight for whale-watchers. Here are 11 facts you might not have known about the mysterious marine giants, who are known for their acrobatics and for sidling right up alongside boats to get a good look at their human observers.

1. THEY’RE LONGER THAN A SCHOOL BUS.

North American school buses max out at about 45 feet long. Female humpback whales—which are larger than males—can be up to 60 feet long, and their pectoral fins alone can be 15 feet long. At birth, humpbacks weigh around 1 ton, doubling in size during their first year of life and eventually reaching up to 40 tons.

2. THEY HAVE HUGE MOUTHS.

In keeping with the rest of their bodies, their mouths are huge—their tongue alone is the size of a small car. But the opening to their throat is only about the size of a grapefruit, according to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, so they can’t swallow large prey. Instead, they eat krill, small fish, and plankton. They can eat up to a ton of food per day, according to the 2015 documentary Humpback Whales.

3. THOSE BUMPS ARE HAIR FOLLICLES.

Each of the distinctive bumps along a humpback’s head holds a single hair that the whale uses to sense the environment around it. These hairs help the whale glean information about water temperature and quality.

4. THEIR FLUKES ARE LIKE FINGERPRINTS.

Like human fingerprints, humpback tails can be used to identify individuals. The pigmentation and scarring on their flukes is unique, and scientists document these markings to keep track of certain whales that they see repeatedly during their research trips.

5. THEY LIVE A LONG TIME, BUT NOT AS LONG AS MANY OTHER WHALES.

Most humpback whales make it into their 60s, but scientists estimate that they may live up to 80 years. Still, that’s nothing compared to bowhead whales, a species whose oldest known individuals have lived to be 200 years old.

6. THEY HAVE THE LONGEST MIGRATIONS OF ANY MAMMAL.

Each year, humpbacks migrate from their feeding grounds in cold waters toward warm breeding areas—Alaskan whales head to Hawaii, while Californian whales head to Mexico and Costa Rica, and Australian whales migrate to the Southern Ocean. These biannual journeys can involve distances of up to 5000 miles, which is officially the longest known migration of any mammal on earth.

The fastest documented migration of a humpback whale was observed in 1988, when a humpback traveled from Sitka, Alaska to to Hawaii in just 39 days—or possibly less, depending on how soon it left Alaskan waters after the researchers sighted it the first time [PDF]. That’s a journey of about 2750 miles point to point.

7. THEY HAVE BEEN KNOWN TO DEFEND OTHER SPECIES FROM ORCAS.

In 2009, marine ecologist Robert Pitman watched two humpback whales rescue a seal from a group of orcas that were pursuing it. The seal ended up on one of the humpbacks’ chests, and when it began to fall off, the whale even nudged it back on with a flipper, indicating that it was an intentional act of altruism. Though it’s not entirely clear why they would do so, it appears to be an offensive response on the part of the humpbacks, who may intervene whenever they hear killer whales fighting, whether one of their own is involved or not.

8. ONLY THE MALES SING.

Their songs may have made the species famous, but not every humpback sings. It’s strictly a male behavior, and plays an important part in courtship displays. There’s plenty of mystery that still surrounds the science of whale songs, but in 2013, researchers discovered that it’s a group activity that involves even sexually immature males. Both young and mature whales sing in chorus, giving the immature whales a lesson in singing and courtship behavior, and helping older whales amplify their songs to draw females to the area from afar. Other research has found that these songs change over times, and whales learn them much like a human learns a new song, bit by bit.

9. BREACHING IS LIKE YELLING

Though humpbacks are famous for their songs, that’s not the only way they communicate. Scientists only recently discovered that breaching—when whales jump up into the air, crashing back down into the water—is a way to keep in touch with far-away friends. Humpbacks leap higher and more often than other whales, and while spectacular to witness, the moves come at a cost: It takes a lot of energy, especially when the whales are fasting. But after 200 hours observing humpbacks migrating past the Australian coast, a team from the University of Queensland found that the whales were more likely to breach when the nearest group of other humpbacks was more than two and a half miles away, and that they were more likely to do so when it was windy out. It appears that breaching is a way to communicate over long distances when there is a lot of competing noise.

10. THEIR SONGS ARE INCREDIBLY COMPLEX …

Humpback songs aren’t just showy. They have their own grammar, and their songs are hierarchical, like sentences. In human language, this means that the meaning of sentences depends on the clauses within them and the words within them. In 2006, mathematical analysis found that humpbacks use phrases, too. And they remix their tunes, too, tweaking them and changing them over time, often combining new and old melodies. Humpback songs have even been visualized as sheet music.

11. … AND HELPED END WHALING.

Researchers estimate [PDF] that prior to the whaling boom of the 19th and 20th centuries, there were around 112,000 humpbacks in the North Atlantic alone, but that by the time commercial whaling was banned in the region in 1955, there were less than 1000 individuals left. Between 1947 and the 1970s, the USSR alone killed an estimated 338,000 humpbacks, falsifying data it was required to submit to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling to disguise the illegal magnitude of its hunting operation. It has been called “one of the greatest environmental crimes of the 20th century.”

While the populations have grown and humpbacks have been taken off the endangered species list, some estimates put the worldwide humpback population at only 40 percent of what it was before the whaling era. Whaling was banned throughout the rest of the world in 1966, though Norway, Iceland, and Japan still practice it.

Roger Payne, one of the scientists who first discovered that humpbacks sing songs, later became instrumental in pushing to protect the species in the 1960s. In 1970, he released his recording of humpback songs as a record, which remains the best-selling nature recording in history. In 1972, the songs were played at a Greenpeace meeting, and ended up galvanizing a new movement: Save the Whales. “It certainly was a huge factor in convincing us that the whales were an intelligent species here on planet Earth and actually made music, made art, created an aesthetic,” as former Greenpeace director Rex Weyler told NPR in 2014. The campaign gained traction with other organizations, too, and helped lead to the International Whaling Commission’s 1982 whaling ban.

Massive Swarms of Migrating Dragonflies Are So Large They’re Popping Up on Weather Radar

emprised/iStock via Getty Images
emprised/iStock via Getty Images

What do Virginia, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio all have in common? Epic swarms of dragonflies, among other things.

WSLS-TV reports that this week, weather radar registered what might first appear to be late summer rain showers. Instead, the green blotches turned out to be swarms of dragonflies—possibly green darners, a type of dragonfly that migrates south during the fall.

Norman Johnson, a professor of entomology at The Ohio State University, told CNN that although these swarms happen occasionally, they’re definitely not a regular occurrence. He thinks the dragonflies, which usually prefer to travel alone, may form packs based on certain weather conditions. If that sounds vague, it’s because it is: Johnson said that entomologists haven’t worked out all the details when it comes to dragonfly migration. They do know that the airborne insects cover an average of eight miles per day, while some overachievers can fly as far as 86.

Based on the radar footage shared by the National Weather Service’s Cleveland Office, the dragonfly clouds seem almost menacing. But, while swarms of any insect species aren’t exactly delightful, these creatures are both harmless and surprisingly beautiful, at least up close. Anna Barnett, a resident of Jeromesville, Ohio, even told CNN that witnessing the natural phenomenon was “amazing!”

Amazing as it may be to see, it’s hard to hear news about unpredictable animal behavior without wondering if it’s related in some way to Earth’s rising temperatures. After all, climate change has already affected wasps in Alabama, polar bears in Russia, and no doubt countless other animal species around the world.

[h/t WSLW-TV]

6 Fall Festivals Around the World That Celebrate Animals

Prakash Mathema, AFP/Getty Images
Prakash Mathema, AFP/Getty Images

Where would humans be without animals? Chickens and cows give us eggs and milk, providing nourishment (and also cake). Horses, donkeys, and water buffalo are as hardworking as any person, and thanks to our pets, we always have a source of love and entertainment to come home to. It's time we celebrate animals more often, and to get you started, here are six fall festivals around the world that do just that.

1. Kukur Tihar

Dog in Nepal during a fall festival
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A big part of Tihar, a five-day Hindu festival held in late autumn in Nepal, is giving thanks to other species. Crows, believed to be the messengers of death, are worshipped on the first day. Cows are worshipped on the third, and often oxen on the fourth. The second day, though, is all about man's best friend. Dogs are described favorably in Hindu religious texts, and it’s believed that they can warn people of impending danger and even death. In a ceremony called Kukur Tihar, people place flower garlands around the necks of both pet dogs and stray dogs to show their respect. A red dot (tika) is placed on their foreheads in an act of worship, and naturally, the dogs are spoiled with lots and lots of treats.

2. Transhumance Festival

Hundreds of sheep in the street
Pierre Philippe Marcou, AFP/Getty Images

In Spanish, this festival in Madrid is called Fiesta de la Trashumancia. The word transhumance refers to the act of moving herds of livestock to different grazing grounds depending on the season. In practice, it's quite the spectacle. Thousands of sheep have been led through the streets of Madrid each autumn since the festival was formally established in 1994. Men and women in traditional garb lead the way, singing and dancing along the parade route in celebration of centuries-old shepherding traditions.

3. Monkey Buffet Festival

A monkey eating various kinds of fruit
Saeed Khan, AFP/Getty Images

Visitors to Thailand’s temples are advised not to feed the monkeys (they can get awfully handsy), but the locals of Lopburi make an exception on the last Sunday of November. On this day, towers of fruit and banquet tables containing several tons of food and even cans of Coca-Cola are set up in the ruins of a 13th-century temple. Once a sheet is removed to unveil the spread, it doesn’t take long for Lopburi’s thousands of macaques to arrive. Thailand's reverence for monkeys dates back some 2000 years to legends surrounding the monkey king Hanuman and his heroic feats. Nowadays, the creatures are considered a sign of good luck in the country.

4. Woolly Worm Festival

The woolly worm is to Banner Elk, North Carolina, what the groundhog is to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. According to local folklore, the color of this fuzzy caterpillar can be analyzed in autumn to predict how severe the forthcoming winter will be. The 13 segments on its body are thought to correspond to the 13 weeks of winter—more black means colder weather and snow, while more brown means the weather will be fair. To make this prognostication process more official, the Woolly Worm Festival was established on the third weekend of October in 1978. This year, it will be held October 20-21. A worm race is the main event, and the caterpillar that climbs the fastest up three feet of string gets the honor of helping to predict the winter (plus a $1000 cash prize for the worm’s coach). “Patsy Climb” and “Dale Wormhardt” were a couple of past competitors.

5. Pushkar Camel Fair

Decorated camels
Roberto Schmidt, AFP/Getty Images

The Indian state of Rajasthan is a vibrant place. It’s home to the Pink City, Blue City, and Yellow City, and it also hosts a colorful cultural event each November called the Pushkar Camel Fair. Celebrated on a full moon day of the Hindu lunar calendar, it’s one of the largest fairs of its kind in the world. The annual gathering is a chance for traders to show off their camels and livestock, while also celebrating local culture and traditions. Both the people and camels sport brilliant attire, participate in a variety of competitions, and dance to lively music. (Yes, there’s video evidence of a dancing camel, but the word dance is used loosely.)

6. Birds of Chile Festival

Held each fall in Viña del Mar along Chile's Pacific coast, the Festival de Aves de Chile celebrates the beauty and diversity of the country's birds. Festival-goers have the chance to see Chile’s national bird—the wide-winged Andean condor, which happens to be one of the largest flying birds in the world—as well as other feathered friends in their natural environment. A series of excursions and talks featuring bird experts are organized each year.

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