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Wikimedia Commons

7 Strange Things Swallowed by Whales

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Some whales are adventuresome eaters. Killer whales, for example, occasionally supplement their normal diets of fish with more unusual fare (more on that below). But other kinds of whales, particularly the baleen variety, end up with an exotic array of objects in their guts, too, because they feed by indiscriminately sucking up huge amounts of water and filtering out the shrimp, plankton, and small fish. Below are seven strange things found in the stomachs and guts of whales—some inanimate, some living, some amusing, and some just sad.

1. A Golf ball

Image courtesy of Lotus Head, used under Creative Commons license. 

A 1994 episode of Seinfeld touched on golf ball-consuming sea mammals. But in 2008, when a golf ball was discovered in the bowels of a beached gray whale in Washington, there was nothing George Constanza or an actual marine biologist could do. On TV, the problematic golf ball was lodged in the whale’s blowhole—“hole in one,” as Kramer says. But in real life, the golf ball was found amongst the whale’s innards. The whale was dead on arrival; scientists don't believe the digested golf ball was related to the mammal's passing.

2. Sweatpants

Image courtesy of Punkt 8, used under Creative Commons license. 

When they're not up for real attire, people often opt for sweatpants. And when the same people are too lazy to properly throw out the trash, garbage—like unwanted sweatpants—ends up in the ocean getting swallowed by whales. The same whale that swallowed a golf ball not far from Seattle was also found with sweatpants in its paunch.

3. Polar Bears

Image courtesy of Alan Wilson, used under Creative Commons license. 

Typically, killer whales subsist on diets of fish; some even dine on baleen whales, penguins, and smaller marine mammals like seals, sea lions, and otters. Sometimes, though, the whales are found with digested pieces of polar bears, moose, reptiles, and many other animals in their guts.

4. Endangered species

Photo courtesy of PMXused under Creative Commons license. 

Critically endangered European eels spend most of their lives in freshwater. But when they fully mature and become sexually aroused, they return to the warm ocean waters of the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the Atlantic to spawn and then die. Unfortunately, not all of them make it to that final moment of coital bliss. Some are gobbled up by several different species of toothed whales in the eastern Atlantic.

5. Greenhouse sheeting

Image courtesy of Quistnixused under Creative Commons license. 

Giant greenhouses in Almeria, Grenada, and even Iceland are responsible for growing the tomatoes that stock the produce aisles of the world’s major supermarkets. They’re also responsible for the tons and tons of plastic sheeting increasingly found mangled inside the stomachs of beached whales. When the plastic sheets used to trap the heat of the sun and help nourish vegetables aren’t thrown away properly, they inevitably end up in the waters surrounding Europe, and eventually inside gray whales.

6. Cigarette butts

Image courtesy of Silly Putty Enemies, used under Creative Commons license. 

Loads of cellulose acetate filters, or cigarette butts, have been found in the stomachs of beached whales.

7. More trash

Image courtesy of Bengt Nyman, used under Creative Commons license. 

A gray whale recently found deceased on the beach of a small island off the coast of the Netherlands had dozens of plastic bags, nine meters of rope, two long pieces of garden hose, a couple of flower pots, and a plastic spray canister in its stomach. It's an increasingly common occurrence: whales stuffed full of human garbage.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

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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Animals
Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View
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Google

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.
Google

Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]

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