CLOSE
istock
istock

11 Blubbery Facts About Sperm Whales

istock
istock

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).

nextArticle.image_alt|e
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
arrow
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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Joe Raedle, Getty Images
arrow
Animals
10 Things You Might Not Know About Grizzly Bears
Joe Raedle, Getty Images
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Ursus arctos horribilis is better known by the more casual term of grizzly bear. These massive, brown-haired predators have a reputation as one of nature’s most formidable killing machines. Standing up to 8 feet tall and weighing 800 pounds, these fierce mammals have captivated—and frightened—humans for centuries. Keep your distance and read up on these facts about their love for munching moths, eating smaller bears, and being polar-curious.

1. THEY’RE ACTUALLY PRETTY LIGHT EATERS.

Grizzlies—more accurately, North American brown bears—are strong enough to make a meal out of whatever they like, including moose, elk, and bison. Despite their reputation for having carnivorous appetites, their diet also consists of nuts, berries, fruits, and leaves. They’ll even eat mice. The gluttony doesn’t kick in until they begin to exhibit hyperphagia, preparing for winter hibernation by chomping down enough food to gain up to three pounds a day.

2. THEY USE “CPR” TO GET AT YOUR FOOD.

A grizzly bear eats fruit in Madrid, Spain
Dani Pozo, AFP/Getty Images

More than 700 grizzlies live in or near Yellowstone National Park, which forces officials to constantly monitor how park visitors and the bears can peacefully co-exist. Because bears rummaging in food containers can lead to unwanted encounters, the park’s Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center tests trash cans and coolers to see if they’re bear-resistant. (Nothing is truly bear-proof.) Often, a bear will use “CPR,” or jumping on a canister with its front legs, in order to make the lid pop off. Containers that can last at least 60 minutes before being opened can be advertised by their manufacturers as being appropriate for bear-inhabited environments.

3. THEY CAN CLIMB TREES.

It's a myth that grizzlies can't climb trees. Though their weight and long claws make climbing difficult [PDF], and they need support from evenly-spaced branches, grizzlies can travel vertically if they choose to.

4. THEY’LL EAT OTHER BEARS.

Two grizzly bears play in a pool at a zoo in France
Jean-Francois Monier, AFP/Getty Images

In addition to being omnivorous, grizzlies can also be classified as cannibals. They’ve been spotted eating the carcasses of black bears in Canada. Calling it a “bear-eat-bear world,” officials at Banff National Park in Alberta said the grizzlies are “opportunistic” and more than willing to devour black bears—sometimes just one-fifth their size—if the occasion calls for it. And it’s not just black bears: One study on bear eating habits published in 2017 recorded a 10-year-old male eating a 6-year-old female brown bear.

5. THEY LOVE MOTHS.

Although grizzlies enjoy eating many insects, moths are at the top of the menu. Researchers have observed that bears are willing to climb to alpine heights at Montana’s Glacier National Park in order to feast on the flying appetizers. Grizzlies will turn over rocks and spend up to 14 hours in a day devouring in excess of 40,000 moths.

6. A PAIR OF THEM ONCE LIVED ON WHITE HOUSE GROUNDS.

A grizzly bear appears at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenseburg, Colorado
John Moore, Getty Images

In what would be considered an ill-advised decision, explorer Zebulon Pike decided to gift his friend President Thomas Jefferson with two grizzly cubs in 1807. Jefferson reluctantly accepted them and kept them in a cage near the north entrance to the White House, and later re-gifted the cubs to museum operator Charles Willson Peale. Sadly, one of them got shot after getting too aggressive with Peale’s family.

7. THEY CAN RUN FASTER THAN USAIN BOLT.

The bears we see in fiction or lazing about in the wild tend to look cumbersome and slow, as most anything weighing nearly a half-ton would. But in a land race, even Olympic champions would be on the losing end. Grizzlies can reportedly run 35 mph, and sustain speeds of up to 28 mph for two miles, faster than Usain Bolt’s 27.78 miles per hour stride (which he can only sustain for a few seconds).

8. THEY MATE WITH POLAR BEARS.

A grizzly bear is shown swimming at a pool in an Illinois zoo
Scott Olson, Getty Images

In parts of Alaska and Canada where grizzlies and polar bears converge, there are sometimes rare sightings of what observers call “grolar bears” or “pizzlies.” With large heads and light-colored fur, they’re a hybrid superbear birthed from some interspecies mating. Typically, it’s male grizzlies who roam into those territories, finding female polar bears to cozy up with. Researchers believe climate change is one reason the two are getting together.

9. THEY KNOW HOW TO COVER THEIR TRACKS.

When it comes to intellect, grizzlies may not get all the same publicity that birds and whales do, but they’re still pretty clever. The bears can remember hotspots for food even if it’s been 10 years since they last visited the area; some have been observed covering tracks or obscuring themselves with rocks and trees to avoid detection by hunters.

10. THEY’RE NOT OUT OF THE WOODS YET.

A grizzly bear and her cub walk in Yellowstone National Park
Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty Images

For 42 years, grizzlies at Yellowstone occupied the endangered species list. That ended in 2017, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared that a rise in numbers—from 150 in the 1970s to more than 700 today—meant that conservation efforts had been successful. But overall, the grizzly population is still struggling: Fewer than 2000 remain in the lower 48 states, down from 50,000 two centuries ago.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios