11 Buoyant Facts About Humpback Whales

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iStock

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.

Plano, Texas Is Home to a Dog-Friendly Movie Theater That Serves Bottomless Wine or Whiskey

K9 Cinemas
K9 Cinemas

For dog owners in Plano, Texas, movie night with Fido no longer just means cuddling on the couch and browsing Netflix. The recently opened K9 Cinemas invites moviegoers—both human and canine—to watch classic films on the big screen. And the best part for the human members of this couple? Your $15 ticket includes bottomless wine or whiskey (or soft drinks if you're under 21).

The theater operates as a pop-up (or perhaps pup-up?) in a private event space near Custer Road and 15th Street in Plano. Snacks—both the pet and people kind—are available for $2 apiece. Dogs are limited to two per person, and just 25 human seats are sold per showing to leave room for the furry guests.

Pet owners are asked follow a few rules in order to take advantage of what the theater has to offer. Dogs must be up-to-date on all their shots, and owners can submit veterinary records online or bring a hard copy to the theater to verify their pooch's health status. Once inside, owners are responsible for taking their dog out for potty breaks and cleaning up after any accidents that happen (thankfully the floors are concrete and easy to wipe down).

While many of the movies shown are canine-themed—a recent screening of A Dog's Journey included branded bandanas with every ticket purchase—they also hold special events, like a Game of Thrones finale watch party (no word on how the puppers in attendance responded to Jon Snow finally acknowledging what a good boy Ghost is).

13 Fascinating Facts About Bees

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iStock.com/florintt

Sure, you know that bees pollinate our crops and give us honey. But there's so much more to these buzzing insects than that.

1. Bee stings have some benefits.

A toxin in bee venom called melittin may prevent HIV. Melittin can kill HIV by poking holes into the virus's protective envelope. (Meanwhile, when melittin hitches a ride on certain nanoparticles, it will just bounce off normal cells and leave them unharmed.) Scientists at Washington University in St. Louis hope the toxin can be used in preventative gels.

Bee stings may also ease pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers at the University of Sao Paulo found that molecules in bee venom increase your body's level of glucocorticoid, an anti-inflammatory hormone.

2. Bees work harder than you do.

During chillier seasons, worker bees can live for nine months. But in the summer, they rarely last longer than six weeks—they literally work themselves to death.

3. When bees change jobs, they change their brain chemistry.

bees flying to a hive
iStock/bo1982

Bees are hardwired to do certain jobs. Scout bees, which search for new sources of food, are wired for adventure. Soldier bees, discovered in 2012, work as security guards their whole life. One percent of all middle-aged bees become undertakers—a genetic brain pattern compels them to remove dead bees from the hive. But most amazingly, regular honeybees—which perform multiple jobs in their lifetime—will change their brain chemistry before taking up a new gig.

4. Their brains defy time.

When aging bees do jobs usually reserved for younger members, their brain stops aging. In fact, their brain ages in reverse. (Imagine if riding a tricycle didn't just make you feel young—it actually made your brain tick like a younger person's.) Scientists at Arizona State University believe the discovery can help us slow the onset of dementia.

5. Bees are changing medicine.

To reinforce their hives, bees use a resin from poplar and evergreen trees called propolis. It's basically beehive glue. Although bees use it as caulk, humans use it to fight off bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Research shows that propolis taken from a beehive may relieve cold sores, canker sores, herpes, sore throat, cavities, and even eczema.

6. Bees can recognize human faces.

Honeybees make out faces the same way we do. They take parts—like eyebrows, lips, and ears—and cobble them together to make out the whole face. It’s called "configural processing," and it might help computer scientists improve face recognition technology, The New York Times reports.

7. Bees have personalities

Even in beehives, there are workers and shirkers. Researchers at the University of Illinois found that not all bees are interchangeable drones. Some bees are thrill-seekers. Others are a bit more timid. A 2011 study even found that agitated honeybees can be pessimistic, showing that, to some extent, bees might have feelings.

8. They get buzzed from caffeine and cocaine.

bumblebee on a flower
iStock/Whiteway

Nature didn't intend for caffeine to be relegated to your morning pot of coffee. It's actually a plant defense chemical that shoos harmful insects away and lures pollinators in. Scientists at Newcastle University found that nectar laced with caffeine helps bees remember where the flower is, increasing the chances of a return visit.

While caffeine makes bees work better, cocaine turns them into big fat liars. Bees "dance" to communicate—a way of giving fellow bees directions to good food. But high honeybees exaggerate their moves and overemphasize the food's quality. They even exhibit withdrawal symptoms, helping scientists understand the nuances of addiction.

9. Bees have Viking-like navigation techniques.

Bees use the Sun as a compass. But when it's cloudy, there's a backup—they navigate by polarized light, using special photoreceptors to find the Sun's place in the sky. The Vikings may have used a similar system: On sunny days, they navigated with sundials, but on cloudy days, sunstones—chunks of calcite that act like a Polaroid filter—helped them stay on course.

10. Bees can solve hairy mathematical problems.

Pretend it's the weekend, and it's time to do errands. You have to visit six stores and they're all at six separate locations. What's the shortest distance you can travel while visiting all six? Mathematicians call this the "traveling salesman problem," and it can even stump some computers. But for bumblebees, it's a snap. Researchers at Royal Holloway University in London found that bumblebees fly the shortest route possible between flowers. So far, they're the only animals known to solve the problem.

11. Bees are nature's most economical builders.

In 36 BCE, Marcus Terentius Varro argued that honeycombs were the most practical structures around. Centuries later, Greek mathematician Pappus solidified the "honeycomb conjecture" by making the same claim. Almost 2000 years later, American mathematician Thomas Hales wrote a mathematical proof showing that, of all the possible structures, honeycombs use the least amount of wax. And not only are honeycombs the most efficient structures in nature—the walls meet at a precise 120-degree angle, a perfect hexagon.

12. Bees can help us catch serial killers.

Serial killers behave like bees. They commit their crimes close to home, but far enough away that the neighbors don't get suspicious. Similarly, bees collect pollen near their hive, but far enough that predators can't find the hive. To understand how this "buffer zone" works, scientists studied bee behavior and wrote up a few algorithms. Their findings improved computer models police use to find felons.

13. Bees are job creators.

beekeeper working with bees
iStock/Milan_Jovic

The average American consumes roughly 1.51 pounds of honey each year. On top of that, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that honeybees pollinate up to 80 percent of the country's insect crops—meaning bees pollinate over $15 billion worth of crops each year.

This article was updated and republished in 2019.

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