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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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Animals
Where Do Birds Get Their Songs?
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iStock

Birds display some of the most impressive vocal abilities in the animal kingdom. They can be heard across great distances, mimic human speech, and even sing using distinct dialects and syntax. The most complex songs take some practice to learn, but as TED-Ed explains, the urge to sing is woven into songbirds' DNA.

Like humans, baby birds learn to communicate from their parents. Adult zebra finches will even speak in the equivalent of "baby talk" when teaching chicks their songs. After hearing the same expressions repeated so many times and trying them out firsthand, the offspring are able to use the same songs as adults.

But nurture isn't the only factor driving this behavior. Even when they grow up without any parents teaching them how to vocalize, birds will start singing on their own. These innate songs are less refined than the ones that are taught, but when they're passed down through multiple generations and shaped over time, they start to sound similar to the learned songs sung by other members of their species.

This suggests that the drive to sing as well as the specific structures of the songs themselves have been ingrained in the animals' genetic code by evolution. You can watch the full story from TED-Ed below, then head over here for a sample of the diverse songs produced by birds.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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