Wikimedia Commons
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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How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Honey Bees Can Understand the Concept of Zero
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The concept of zero—less than one, nothing, nada—is deceptively complex. The first placeholder zero dates back to around 300 BCE, and the notion didn’t make its way to Western Europe until the 12th century. It takes children until preschool to wrap their brains around the concept. But scientists in Australia recently discovered a new animal capable of understanding zero: the honey bee. According to Vox, a new study finds that the insects can be taught the concept of nothing.

A few other animals can understand zero, according to current research. Dolphins, parrots, and monkeys can all understand the difference between something and nothing, but honey bees are the first insects proven to be able to do it.

The new study, published in the journal Science, finds that honey bees can rank quantities based on “greater than” and “less than,” and can understand that nothing is less than one.

Left: A photo of a bee choosing between images with black dots on them. Right: an illustration of a bee choosing the image with fewer dots
© Scarlett Howard & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

The researchers trained bees to identify images in the lab that showed the fewest number of elements (in this case, dots). If they chose the image with the fewest circles from a set, they received sweetened water, whereas if they chose another image, they received bitter quinine.

Once the insects got that concept down, the researchers introduced another challenge: The bees had to choose between a blank image and one with dots on it. More than 60 percent of the time, the insects were successfully able to extrapolate that if they needed to choose the fewest dots between an image with a few dots and an image with no dots at all, no dots was the correct answer. They could grasp the concept that nothing can still be a numerical quantity.

It’s not entirely surprising that bees are capable of such feats of intelligence. We already know that they can count, teach each other skills, communicate via the “waggle dance,” and think abstractly. This is just more evidence that bees are strikingly intelligent creatures, despite the fact that their insect brains look nothing like our own.

Considering how far apart bees and primates are on the evolutionary tree, and how different their brains are from ours—they have fewer than 1 million neurons, while we have about 86 billion—this finding raises a lot of new questions about the neural basis of understanding numbers, and will no doubt lead to further research on how the brain processes concepts like zero.

[h/t Vox]

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