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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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Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images
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Animals
How a Pregnant Rhino Named Victoria Could Save an Entire Subspecies
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images

The last male northern white rhino died at a conservancy in Kenya earlier this year, prompting fears that the subspecies was finally done for after decades of heavy poaching. Scientists say there's still hope, though, and they're banking on a pregnant rhino named Victoria at the San Diego Zoo, according to the Associated Press.

Victoria is actually a southern white rhino, but the two subspecies are related. Only two northern white rhinos survive, but neither of the females in Kenya are able to reproduce. Victoria was successfully impregnated through artificial insemination, and if she successfully carries her calf to term in 16 to 18 months, scientists say she might be able to serve as a surrogate mother and propagate the northern white rhino species.

But how would that work if no male northern rhinos survive? As the AP explains, scientists are working to recreate northern white rhino embryos using genetic technology. The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has the frozen cell lines of 12 different northern white rhinos, which can be transformed into stem cells—and ultimately, sperm and eggs. The sperm of the last northern white male rhino, Sudan, was also saved before he died.

Scientists have been monitoring six female southern white rhinos at the San Diego Zoo to see if any emerge as likely candidates for surrogacy. However, it's not easy to artificially inseminate a rhino, and there have been few successful births in the past. There's still a fighting chance, though, and scientists ultimately hope they'll be able to build up a herd of five to 15 northern white rhinos over the next few decades.

[h/t Time Magazine]

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(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
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The Time Carl Akeley Killed a Leopard With His Bare Hands
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.

Carl Akeley had plenty of close encounters with animals in his long career as a naturalist and taxidermist. There was the time a bull elephant had charged him on Mount Kenya, nearly crushing him; the time he was unarmed and charged by three rhinos who missed him, he said later, only because the animals had such poor vision; and the time the tumbling body of a silverback gorilla he'd just shot almost knocked him off a cliff. This dangerous tradition began on his very first trip to Africa, where, on an otherwise routine hunting trip, the naturalist became the prey.

It was 1896. Following stints at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment and the Milwaukee Public Museum, Akeley, 32, had just been appointed chief taxidermist for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and he was tasked with gathering new specimens to bolster the 3-year-old museum's fledgling collections. After more than four months of travel and numerous delays, the expedition had reached the plains of Ogaden, a region of Ethiopia, where Akeley hunted for specimens for days without success.

Then, one morning, Akeley managed to shoot a hyena shortly after he left camp. Unfortunately, “one look at his dead carcass was enough to satisfy me that he was not as desirable as I had thought, for his skin was badly diseased,” he later wrote in his autobiography, In Brightest Africa. He shot a warthog, a fine specimen, but what he really wanted was an ostrich—so he left the carcass behind, climbed a termite hill to look for the birds, then took off after a pair he saw in the tall grass.

But the ostriches eluded him at every turn, so he returned to camp and grabbed the necessary tools to cut off the head of his warthog. However, when he and a “pony boy” got to the spot where he’d left the carcass, all that remained was a bloodstain. “A crash in the bushes at one side led me in a hurry in that direction and a little later I saw my pig's head in the mouth of a hyena travelling up the slope of a ridge out of range,” Akeley wrote. “That meant that my warthog specimen was lost, and, having got no ostriches, I felt it was a pretty poor day.”

As the sun began to set, Akeley and the boy turned back to camp. “As we came near to the place where I had shot the diseased hyena in the morning, it occurred to me that perhaps there might be another hyena about the carcass, and feeling a bit ‘sore’ at the tribe for stealing my warthog, I thought I might pay off the score by getting a good specimen of a hyena for the collections,” he wrote. But that carcass was gone, too, with a drag trail in the sand leading into the bush.

Akeley heard a sound, and, irritated, “did a very foolish thing,” firing into the bush without seeing what he was shooting at. He knew, almost immediately, that he'd made a mistake: The answering snarl told him that what he’d fired at was not a hyena at all, but a leopard.

The taxidermist began thinking of all the things he knew about the big cats. A leopard, he wrote,

“... has all the qualities that gave rise to the ‘nine lives’ legend: To kill him you have got to kill him clear to the tip of his tail. Added to that, a leopard, unlike a lion, is vindictive. A wounded leopard will fight to a finish practically every time, no matter how many chances it has to escape. Once aroused, its determination is fixed on fight, and if a leopard ever gets hold, it claws and bites until its victim is in shreds. All this was in my mind, and I began looking about for the best way out of it, for I had no desire to try conclusions with a possibly wounded leopard when it was so late in the day that I could not see the sights of my rifle.”

Akeley beat a hasty retreat. He’d return the next morning, he figured, when he could see better; if he’d wounded the leopard, he could find it again then. But the leopard had other ideas. It pursued him, and Akeley fired again, even though he couldn’t see enough to aim. “I could see where the bullets struck as the sand spurted up beyond the leopard. The first two shots went above her, but the third scored. The leopard stopped and I thought she was killed.”

The leopard had not been killed. Instead, she charged—and Akeley’s magazine was empty. He reloaded the rifle, but as he spun to face the leopard, she leapt on him, knocking it out of his hands. The 80-pound cat landed on him. “Her intention was to sink her teeth into my throat and with this grip and her forepaws hang to me while with her hind claws she dug out my stomach, for this pleasant practice is the way of leopards,” Akeley wrote. “However, happily for me, she missed her aim.” The wounded cat had landed to one side; instead of Akeley’s throat in her mouth, she had his upper right arm, which had the fortuitous effect of keeping her hind legs off his stomach.

It was good luck, but the fight of Akeley’s life had just begun.

Using his left hand, he attempted to loosen the leopard’s hold. “I couldn't do it except little by little,” he wrote. “When I got grip enough on her throat to loosen her hold just a little she would catch my arm again an inch or two lower down. In this way I drew the full length of the arm through her mouth inch by inch.”

He felt no pain, he wrote, “only of the sound of the crushing of tense muscles and the choking, snarling grunts of the beast.” When his arm was nearly free, Akeley fell on the leopard. His right hand was still in her mouth, but his left hand was still on her throat. His knees were on her chest and his elbows in her armpits, “spreading her front legs apart so that the frantic clawing did nothing more than tear my shirt.”

It was a scramble. The leopard tried to twist around and gain the advantage, but couldn’t get purchase on the sand. “For the first time,” Akeley wrote, “I began to think and hope I had a chance to win this curious fight.”

He called for the boy, hoping he’d bring a knife, but received no response. So he held on to the animal and “continued to shove the hand down her throat so hard she could not close her mouth and with the other I gripped her throat in a stranglehold.” He bore down with his full weight on her chest, and felt a rib crack. He did it again—another crack. “I felt her relax, a sort of letting go, although she was still struggling. At the same time I felt myself weakening similarly, and then it became a question as to which would give up first.”

Slowly, her struggle ceased. Akeley had won. He lay there for a long time, keeping the leopard in his death grip. “After what seemed an interminable passage of time I let go and tried to stand, calling to the pony boy that it was finished.” The leopard, he later told Popular Science Monthly, had then shown signs of life; Akeley used the boy’s knife to make sure it was really, truly dead.

Akeley’s arm was shredded, and he was weak—so weak that he couldn’t carry the leopard back to camp. “And then a thought struck me that made me waste no time,” he told Popular Science. “That leopard has been eating the horrible diseased hyena I had killed. Any leopard bite is liable to give one blood poison, but this particular leopard’s mouth must have been exceptionally foul.”

He and the boy must have been quite the sight when they finally made it back to camp. His companions had heard the shots, and figured Akeley had either faced off with a lion or the natives; whatever the scenario, they figured Akeley would prevail or be defeated before they could get to him, so they kept on eating dinner. But when Akeley appeared, with “my clothes ... all ripped, my arm ... chewed into an unpleasant sight, [with] blood and dirt all over me,” he wrote in In Brightest Africa, “my appearance was quite sufficient to arrest attention.”

He demanded all the antiseptics the camp had to offer. After he'd been washed with cold water, “the antiseptic was pumped into every one of the innumerable tooth wounds until my arm was so full of the liquid that an injection in one drove it out of another,” he wrote. “During the process I nearly regretted that the leopard had not won.”

When that was done, Akeley was taken to his tent, and the dead leopard was brought in and laid out next to his cot. Her right hind leg was wounded—which, he surmised, had come from his first shot into the brush, and was what had thrown off her pounce—and she had a flesh wound in the back of her neck where his last shot had hit her, “from the shock of which she had instantly recovered.”

Not long after his close encounter with the leopard, the African expedition was cut short when its leader contracted malaria, and Akeley returned to Chicago. The whole experience, he wrote to a friend later, transported him back to a particular moment at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which he’d visited after creating taxidermy mounts for the event. “As I struggled to wrest my arm from the mouth of the leopard I recalled vividly a bronze at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, depicting the struggle between a man and bear, the man’s arm in the mouth of the bear,” he wrote. “I had stood in front of this bronze one afternoon with a doctor friend and we discussed the probable sensations of a man in this predicament, wondering whether or not the man would be sensible to the pain of the chewing and the rending of his flesh by the bear. I was thinking as the leopard tore at me that now I knew exactly what the sensations were, but that unfortunately I would not live to tell my doctor friend.”

In the moment, though, there had been no pain, “just the joy of a good fight,” Akeley wrote, “and I did live to tell my [doctor] friend all about it.”

Additional source: Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals

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