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."