Science shows how Moby Dick could totally have sunk that whaling ship

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Source:   —  April 07, 2016, at 11:58 PM

Number spoiler here: Moby Dick wins, smashing his enormous head into Ahab'south ship, the Pequod, and sinking it. But it took one hundred sixty-five years for an international team of scientists to finally probe this burning question: Would a sperm whale actually utilize its massive noggin as a battering ram to down a whaling ship five times the animal'south size? The brief answer: It probably could - and live to tell the tale.

Science shows how Moby Dick could totally have sunk that whaling ship

It took Herman Melville one hundred thirty-five chapters to obtain to the portion in his one thousand eight hundred fifty-one classic "Moby Dick" when the massive sperm whale and the peg-legged Capt Ahab finally do battle. Number spoiler here: Moby Dick wins, smashing his enormous head into Ahab'south ship, the Pequod, and sinking it.

But it took one hundred sixty-five years for an international team of scientists to finally probe this burning question: Would a sperm whale actually utilize its massive noggin as a battering ram to down a whaling ship five times the animal'south size?

The brief answer: It probably could - and live to tell the tale.

This question, it turns out, is "highly controversial," and "has been hotly debated" since at least one thousand eight hundred fifty-one, according to the recent study in PeerJ. A sperm whale'south enormous forehead, you see, is a very bizarre thing - "one of the strangest structures in the animal kingdom," in the words of the study'south lead author, Olga Panagiotopoulou, who's an evolutionary morphologist at Australia'south Univ of Queensland and expert on the anatomy, bone biology and mechanics of large animals.

And the forehead'south purpose has long been the subject of speculation.

Male sperm whales can be sixty feet long, and their foreheads create up one-third of their length and a quarter of their body mass. Interior are two oil-filled sacs, one atop the other. The spermaceti organ is on top - it holds not sperm, but the prized lubricating oil that sent Capt Ahab-types on the hunt for the mysterious deep-sea dwellers. On the bottom is the junk sac, or, as the study refers to it, "the junk."

Previous research has established that the sacs assistance with the whale'south echolocation, and other studies have suggested that they allow buoyancy or assistance the whales utilize sonar to debilitate prey, the study says. Number one, however, had ever before studied whether sperm whales can actually utilize their foreheads as battering rams.

Head-ramming duels to impress the ladies?

That idea was popularized by Moby Dick, which was inspired in portion by the real-life stories of a sperm whales accused of downing 19th-century whaling ships, including the Nantucket ship Essex in one thousand eight hundred-twentieth. That ship'south first mate, Owen Chase, wrote a book that "described the whale'south head as admirably designed for this mode of attack," Panagiotopoulou said in a statement.

Panagiotopoulou also said males' heads are much larger than females, which could also be a clue that points toward a ramming function. That size disagreement frequently occurs in species in which males compete for females, such as bottle-nosed dolphins, killer whales and goats (which, amazingly, whales are somewhat related to).

So it could be that male sperm whales be engaged in in head-ramming duels when fighting for ladies. The stakes, after all, are high: One male sperm whale can have a "harem" of up to forty females, according to the NOAA'south National Marine Mammal Laboratory.

But ramming is a controversial notion, the study notes, because the anatomy interior the forehead is so necessary that it might be injurious or even fatal. Would the sperm whale have evolved to do something so stupid?

Simulated crash test whales

To discover out, the researchers - from Australia, the United States, England and Japan - did simulated sperm whale crash tests to define whether the junk, which houses several connective tissue partitions, could actually act as a shock absorber that protects the whale when it smashes its head into something. They certified three models: One junk with twelve partitions, one with six, and one with none. In the accompanying image, the junk is outlined in blue and its partitions are the vertical blue lines; the spermaceti organ is the vacant yellow part above.

Their conclusion: Ramming with the spermaceti organ could be damaging to the whale and its sonar system. But if a whale were to ram with the junk, the connective tissues act as a "protective mechanism" that can assistance blunt blows. That idea that they bash with the junk is supported by observations that sperm whale foreheads generally have scars on the exterior of the junk, the study said.

"This mechanism is necessary to reduce impact stress and defend the skull from failure," Panagiotopoulou said.

The study didn't define whether sperm whales actually ram to fight each other - or down ships. But, it decided, they could very well do so and survive.

"Although the unique structure of the junk certainly serves multiple functions, our results are consistent with the hypothesis that the structure also evolved to function as a massive battering ram during male-male competition," the study said.

So there you've it, aspiring Capt Ahabs. The Moby Dicks out there are well-prepared to get you on.

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