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11 Blubbery Facts About Sperm Whales

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Let’s dive into the mystique and majesty of these real-life leviathans.

1. Adult Sperm Whales Have the Biggest Brains on Earth.

Your brain only weighs about 3 pounds, but a sperm whale's brain can weigh up to 17 pounds. But humans do have much bigger brains proportionally-speaking: grey matter occupies 2 percent of our body weight and a meager .02 percent of a sperm whale’s. So maybe we should just call it a draw.

2. Sperm Whales are Named After the White, Waxy Substance they Produce

When early whalers began finding this material (which is generated by a barrel-like organ inside the animal’s head), they assumed it had some kind of reproductive function and dubbed the stuff “spermaceti” (Latin for “whale seed”).

Wondering about this goo’s function? Join the club. For centuries, naturalists have tried to discern its biological role. Some suspect that spermaceti helps regulate buoyancy while others think it evolved as a shock-absorber to protect the brains of hormonal, head-butting males during mating season. [PDF] A third hypothesis focuses on sound—perhaps it helps shape long-distance sperm whale vocalizations.

3. They Love Squid, Even Giant Squids

There isn’t a calamari-lover on earth who could rival a sperm whale’s gusto for squid. Females gobble up 700-800 of ‘em every single day while males generally put away a more modest 300-400. Stomach contents reveal that giant squids are among the several dozen species on a sperm whale’s menu. However, if the nasty-looking suction cup-shaped scars pictured above are any indication, they appear to be one costly entrée.

4. Sperm Whales Are World-Class Divers

The mammals have been recorded descending to depths of over 3,280 feet and can go 90 minutes between breaths.

5. They’re the World’s Largest Toothed Predators

Blue and fin whales may be bigger, but, unlike those filter-feeders, sperm whales use stout, pointy teeth come mealtime (though only their lower jaws have such chompers: these slide into corresponding holes on toothless upper jaws).

6. Males Are, on Average, Three Times Heavier

Differences between the sexes are hardly skin-deep. Socially, female sperm whales form tight-knit communities, while males lead relatively lonely lives after reaching maturity.

7. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was Based on a True Story About an Enraged Sperm Whale

This stranger-than-fiction incident unfolded in the South Pacific on November 20, 1820, when a gigantic male slammed into a New England whaling vessel called The Essex. Beaten and battered, her 21 crewman abandoned the sinking ship, leaping onto three oar-driven whaleboats before she went under. Afterwards, a toilsome, 3000-mile journey across open, unforgiving ocean awaited these rattled survivors. Several perished en route and many of their companions clung to life by resorting to cannibalism before finally getting rescued off the coast of Chile.

8. Their Lower Jaws “Coil” Occasionally

Many otherwise healthy specimens with severely-deformed jawlines have been found over the years, including a few whose lower jaws had been warped into a “corkscrew” shape.

9. Sperm Whales Can Recognize Each Other’s Voices

On diving trips, members of sperm whale pods keep in touch with their compatriots via long-distance clicks. Amazingly, even when two individuals repeat the exact same pattern, their faraway friends can tell them apart thanks to each animal’s unique inflections.

10. Spermaceti Once Illuminated the Industrialized World

Smokeless candles can be made out of the material, a fact which almost drove these majestic mammals into extinction. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, spermaceti-fueled lanterns, streetlights, and lighthouses were in high demand. Sadly, meeting that demand called for the deaths of an estimated 236,000 sperm whales in the 1700s alone. This overhunting eventually sent the industry into chaos as cetaceans grew progressively scarcer. By 1846, profits had dwindled and the price of spermaceti doubled. Fortunately for consumers and sperm whales, an alternative energy source soon came to light when Canadian geologist Abner Gesner developed a longer-lasting kerosene-based lamp fuel which all but eradicated the sperm whaling trade.

11. Dead Ones Are Prone to Exploding

If you see a beached whale corpse, you might wanna consider stepping back. Decaying cadavers have, on numerous occasions, violently erupted in front of stunned human audiences. Gasses released inside the animals’ bodies during decomposition are known to build up & rip through flesh in a powerful burst of malodorous airborne entrails.

Curiously, these incidents tend to disproportionately involve sperm whales as was the case in 2006, when a rotting specimen made international headlines by splattering its vital organs all over a busy Taiwanese street. And last year, another one popped on the Faroe Islands, as you can see in this clip (not for the faint of heart).

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Animals
25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
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Art
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b

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