Animals

Real Moby Dick: Some Whales Ram With Their Heads

The old whaler’s tale that inspired the classic novel Moby Dick may have actually happened.

Fictional "Moby Dick" intentionally destroyed ships, but now new research finds that at least some whales really can use their head as a battering ram to inflict all kinds of damage.

The idea was first proposed by 19th century whaler Owen Chase, who inspired Herman Melville's novel, but now high tech analysis has enabled scientists to prove what was once considered to be a far-fetched theory.

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Back in the day, Chase swore that his ship, the Essex, was sunk by a large male sperm whale that he said intentionally rammed the ship with his forehead. Many at the time thought that this was just an old fisherman's tale, but now researchers believe Chase's account likely was accurate.

"The ramming hypothesis was received with reluctance by the scientific community," Olga Panagiotopoulou from the University of Queensland said in a press release. "This was mainly because the front part of the sperm whale head houses sensitive anatomical structures that produce the sounds essential for sonar and would be in harm's way in a ramming event. Also not many people had actually observed sperm whales ramming."

She continued, "We were fascinated when we received a report from a pilot and conservation researcher, who documented sperm whales ramming while flying over the Gulf of California."

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Before that report, Panagiotopoulou and her team had studied sperm whales and suspected that these marine mammals could successfully engage in the behavior. After the news came in from the Gulf of California, they looked further into the matter.

Senior author Todd Pataky from Shinshu University in Japan explained that he and his colleagues created a detailed computer model of the sperm whale head. They then virtually tested how it could handle ramming and related impacts.

"The sperm whale forehead is one of the strangest structures in the animal kingdom," Panagiotopoulou said. "Internally, the forehead is composed of two large oil-filled sacs, stacked one on top of the other, known as the spermaceti organ and the junk sacs. It is the oil within the upper spermaceti organ that was the main target of the whaling industry in the early 19th century."

Computer simulations determined that the connective tissue partitions embedded within the "junk" absorb impacts and strongly protect the male sperm whale skull from fracturing. The researchers noted that this part of the head, and the other skull anatomy, are larger and much more robust in males.

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Male sperm whales evolved such a head because they fight with each other when competing for choice females.

A perhaps even more surprising finding is that the whales likely evolved the battle-ready head from hoofed terrestrial mammals. Whales are related to these animals, known as "artiodactyls," or even-toed ungulates. The group today includes antelopes, sheep and more.

The scientists suspect that other male whales might have the ramming ability, too.

As Panagiotopoulou said, "Our study has limitations, but we hope to stimulate future research to unravel the mechanical function of the head during head-butting events in other species, where aggressive behavior has been observed, but remains un-modelled."

A sperm whale's head is built for bashing.

Few animals are as majestic and awe-inspiring as whales. Their sheer size, coupled with their underwater elegance, makes seeing just a hint of one breaking the ocean's surface a life goal for many of us. Among the more well-known of these glorious giants is the musical, acrobatic humpback. "This photo was taken in August off of the island of Vavau in the Kingdom of Tonga," says photographer Karim Iliya, "moments after this juvenile humpback whale took a sharp turn to avoid smashing into me. See more of his story in a

new episode

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This Happened Here

on Discovery's new

Seeker network

.

"The babies are these curious clumsy little creatures that can fill you with so much joy that your heart feels like it will explode from your chest," Iliya said.

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Not every interaction is so calm and peaceful. When you swim with whales, sometimes you get a playful juvenile, but other times you can find yourself in the middle of an all out frenzy. This is what happened to Iliya after jumping into the water, not knowing battle-scarred adult male humpbacks were fighting over the right to mate with the lone female.

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"Four large male humpback whales emerged, two of them broke off and started smashing into each other blowing bubbles, tails whipping around," Iliya said. "They came closer and closer all the while fighting, a 5-meter-long tale whipped near my face, and the thought occurred to me that I would be pulverized between these two school bus sized animals."

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"Looking back on the images that I had taken I see that the whales were looking at me, even as they fought. It is a true testament to the gentleness of these giants that they would take the time and effort to avoid crushing this tiny little creature before them. "

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"The thing that I loved most about photographing humpback whales is the level of interaction that you have with them. They are highly intelligent creatures with distinct personalities and will convey a range of emotions and attitude like curiosity and playfulness, or even annoyance."

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