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10 Playful Facts About Beluga Whales

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In an ocean filled with over 80 whale species, belugas definitely stand out from the crowd. From their distinct pale shade to their relatively petite stature, you should have no trouble identifying these social sea mammals if you’re ever in their arctic neighborhood. Here are 10 facts worth knowing about the bubbly beluga whale.

1. THEIR NICKNAME ISN'T AS CRUEL AS IT SOUNDS.

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Belugas are sometimes referred to as “melonheads,” and while that sounds like a name thought up by a middle school bully, it actually has some scientific basis. The bulbous structure that occupies the whale’s forehead is indeed called a melon, and it can be found in all species of toothed whales. The fatty organ is believed to aid in echolocation (a process in which animals use echoes of their calls to locate and identify objects), and it can be observed changing shape during whale vocalizations.

2. THEY ARE EXTREMELY VOCAL. 

Another, much nicer-sounding nickname belugas have earned for themselves is “sea canary.” The name comes from the animal’s rich and varied vocal range, which is sometimes loud enough to reach through the hulls of ships. Scientists have documented at least 11 distinct beluga whale sounds, including high-pitched whistles, clicks, mews, bleats, chirps, and bell-like tones. The noises are used for echolocation when navigating dark, arctic waters, and experts believe they also function as a form of communication between whales. Mothers and calves exchange calls that can be compared to the sound of a finger running along a plastic comb.

3. THEY CAN EVEN MIMIC HUMAN SPEECH.

Beluga whales living in captivity have been reported to mimic the speech of their human handlers. A whale named NOC, who lived at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego for 30 years, was one of the first belugas observed to exhibit this type of behavior. A human diver was once convinced to climb out of the whale’s tank when he heard what he thought was another person instructing him to leave. It turned out that the sound had actually been NOC mimicking the word “out.”

4. THEY ALSO USE BUBBLES TO COMMUNICATE.

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In addition to being master vocalists, belugas are also experts when it comes to bubble-blowing. A recent study of 44 captive beluga whales showed that this behavior is more than just a source of amusement for them. While rings and bubbles slowly released from the blowhole are believed to be a sign of playfulness, other bubble types are suspected to serve more functional purposes. Sudden bubble bursts can indicate a defensive reaction, while matching bubble rings blown by a pair of whales is connected to social bonding behaviors. 

5. THEIR UNIQUE COLOR HELPS THEM SURVIVE.

Tiffany Terry via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The word beluga is derived from the Russian term for white, bielo. The mostly pure white shade of adults (calves are dark gray) is arguably the whale’s most distinctive feature, but it’s meant to help them blend in, not stand out. As they swim among the polar ice caps, their pigmentation is thought to act as camouflage to protect them from predators like polar bears and orca whales.

6. THEIR NECKS ARE UNUSUALLY FLEXIBLE.

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Unlike most whales and dolphins, the seven neck vertebrae of the beluga whale are not fused together. This allows the creature the freedom to turn its head side-to-side and nod up and down. The adaptation is thought to help them better target their prey in areas that are full of ice or silt. 

7. THEY CAN SWIM BACKWARDS.

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Belugas possess another ability that is quite unusual among cetaceans: They can swim backwards. Their impressive maneuverability skills make up for their sluggish speeds of two to five miles per hour. 

8. THERE’S A REASON THEY LACK A DORSAL FIN.

tbd7182 via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Many whales can be easily spotted when their dorsal fins break through the water’s surface, but this feature is absent from the backs of belugas. The reduction of surface area helps prevent heat loss in the frigid Arctic Ocean, and it also makes it easier for them to glide directly beneath sheets of ice. They do, however, have a sturdy dorsal ridge along their backs that helps them break up ice layers.

9. THEY’RE CLOSE COUSINS WITH NARWHALS.

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The beluga is closely related to another unusual species of arctic-dwelling whale—the narwhal. The two medium toothed whales are the sole members of the Monodontidae family.

10. THEY PACK PLENTY OF BLUBBER.

Eyesplash via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Beluga whales have adapted to their arctic habitat by developing an especially thick layer of insulation. Blubber alone accounts for more than 40 percent of the whale’s body weight. 

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Slow Motion Is the Only Way to Appreciate a Chameleon’s Lightning-Fast Tongue
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From the unusual way they walk, to their ability to change color, the evolutionary adaptations of chameleons are pretty bizarre, and some of them remain mysterious even to scientists. Their super-powered tongues, for instance, can dart out so quickly that the movement can barely be seen with the naked eye. But modern high-speed cameras have enabled researchers at the University of South Dakota to observe this appendage at work like never before. The video below, shared over at The Kid Should See This, includes some of that groundbreaking footage, and it's pretty amazing to watch.

Shooting at 3000 frames per second, the camera was able to capture every split-second aspect of the chameleon's tongue strike. Slowed down, the video allows you to see how every component of the process works in harmony: First, muscles in the lizard’s tongue contract like the string of a bow. Then, when that tension is released, the bony base of the tongue shoots forward, pushing the sticky, elastic part toward the chameleon’s prey.

According to Christopher Anderson, one of the scientists who conducted the high-speed camera research, larger chameleons can catapult their tongues forward at distances of one to two times their body length. For smaller chameleons, this distance can reach up to two and a half times their body length. “Small chameleons need to be able to eat more food for their body size than large chameleons,” he tells bioGraphic in the video, “and so by being able to project their tongues proportionately further than these large species, they basically are opening up additional feeding opportunities to themselves that they wouldn’t have if they had a shorter tongue.”

To see one of nature’s greatest hunting tools in action, check out the full video below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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