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Beluga Whales Use Bubbles to Communicate

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A recent study suggests that the bubbles blown by beluga whales are more than just adorable. In a new paper currently under review for publication in the journal Aquatic Mammals, researchers report that belugas use bubbles to communicate with whales around them.

Animal behavior researchers Elizabeth George and Michael Noonan recently talked to Discover about their research, which they gathered by studying 44 captive belugas at Ontario's Marineland over the course of eight years. They found that the whales create four distinct bubbles types—blowhole drips, blowhole bursts, blowhole streams, and mouth rings—and that each corresponds to a different state of mind. Rings and bubbles slowly released from the blowhole are normally signs of playfulness, while an abrupt bubble burst could be a defensive reaction in the presence of a threat. Mother belugas have previously been observed blowing bursts of bubbles to fend off surrounding whales when swimming with their calves. In this new study, they were shown to create the bursts in response to alarming noises and other unexpected events. 

Anyone familiar with belugas shouldn’t be surprised that they also blow bubbles for fun. The whales are some of the most playful creatures on Earth—especially the females—and devote approximately one-third of their time to play. They often create shimmering bubble rings with their mouths just to entertain themselves. But bubbles can also provide an opportunity for social bonding. Sometimes one whale will blow a bubble to have another one pop it, or two whales will blow matching bubble rings. This latter behavior is especially prevalent in whales with close bonds, like pairs of affiliated males or mothers and calves. 

With other bubble-blowing patterns, the ultimate purpose isn’t as clear. Male belugas are sometimes observed swimming beside one another while blowing steady streams of bubbles, a behavior that has researchers perplexed. Humpback whales do something similar as a means of intimidation when competing for mates, but in belugas it appears to come from a more amicable place. The researchers behind the recent study suspect the stream might be a form of bonding between the whales.

With all these findings, it’s important to keep in mind that most of the research on their bubble-blowing behavior has been conducted on whales in captivity; belugas are difficult to study in the wild. So the actions of captive belugas may differ from those in natural habitats. 

[h/t: Discover]

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Watch a School of Humpback Whales 'Fish' Using Nets Made of Bubbles 

Just like humans, humpback whales catch many fish at once by using nets—but instead of being woven from fibers, their nets are made of bubbles.

Unique to humpbacks, the behavior known as bubble-net feeding was recently captured in a dramatic drone video that was created by GoPro and spotted by Smithsonian. The footage features a school of whales swimming off Maskelyne Island in British Columbia, Canada, in pursuit of food. The whales dive down, and a large circle of bubbles forms on the water's surface. Then, the marine mammals burst into the air, like circus animals jumping through a ring, and appear to swallow their meal.

The video offers a phenomenal aerial view of the feeding whales, but it only captures part of the underwater ritual. It begins with the group's leader, who locates schools of fish and krill and homes in on them. Then, it spirals to the water's surface while expelling air from its blowhole. This action creates the bubble ring, which works like a net to contain the prey.

Another whale emits a loud "trumpeting feeding call," which may stun and frighten the fish into forming tighter schools. Then, the rest of the whales herd the fish upwards and burst forth from the water, their mouths open wide to receive the fruits of their labor.

Watch the intricate—and beautiful—feeding process below:

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