The tendency for a right bias could go back to the common ancestor of all mammals, and even before then. Friedlaender said that the bias is ubiquitous even in "vertebrate groups that are far more primitive or older than mammals."
It can be challenging to accomplish tasks that go against one's inherent lateralization. Consider the awkwardness of a right-handed person forced to wield a pen in their left hand, or vice-versa for a leftie.
Given the challenges of studying the largest animal that has ever lived on Earth, scientists are unclear if blue whales are more flexible than other animals in switching from right to left preference. Perhaps, even with their right bias, they are more ambidextrous than previously thought.
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Whales, however, are facing unprecedented challenges due to human activities. Prior research, for example, showed that blue whales subjected to military sonar may react by swimming hundreds of miles, changing swimming depths so rapidly that bleeding occurs in their ears and eyes, and may even beach themselves.
The new study was actually borne out of work sponsored by the Office of Naval Research to understand the behavioral responses of blue whales to navy sonar.
"By understanding the context surrounding when whales behave in certain ways we can better understand the impact of disturbance to these animals both when it occurs, but in a chronic sense too, over time," Friedlaender said.
"If the whales were forced, over time, to feed in less quality prey patches and have to expend more energy doing so, this would likely impact individual animal fitness and eventually lead to decreases in growth rates and reproductive rates," he added.
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The researchers next hope to investigate whether or not there are asymmetries in the bodies of blue whales that would make it more challenging for them to roll to the left based on their anatomy. Video cameras attached to the whales could not only show this, but also discern if the krill have a lateralization bias.
They also hope to learn if blue whales in other populations at different locations also perform both right and left lunge rolls. If so, and if no sonar is present, then the flexibility may just reflect a common, normal behavior. If not, then the left-shifted rolls seen in shallow water off the coast of California may provide evidence that the whales are struggling to get enough food.
"We are just stretching the surface of what we know about how whales make a living in the ocean," Friedlaender said. "But by combining new technology with our questions, we can begin to better understand how these animals behave, what they need to survive, and how human impacts in the ocean — such as sound — affect these animals."
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