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Blue Whale

An Explorit "Science Bytes" article by Kimberley Bernick (2006)

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The Blue Whale: Earth's Largest Inhabitant 

by Kimberley Bernick

 

Blue whales are one of earth's most mysterious and intriguing creatures. Growing, on average, up to 80 feet long and weighing between 90 and 150 tons, the blue whale is by far the largest animal that has ever existed on the planet.

Despite their tremendous size, blue whales bear the nickname "gentle giants" and feed on one of the smallest creatures in the sea. Surviving on a diet that predominantly consists of tiny krill, the blue whale can swallow over 1,000 krill in a single gulp and must eat an estimated 8,000 pounds of food per day to remain well fed.

Krill thrive in plentiful schools in nearly every ocean in the world, and the blue whale is well adapted to feed on these miniature shrimp. Blue whales do not have teeth. Instead, their mouths are full of baleen, a comb-like fringe that grows downward from their top jaws. The whales take in a mouthful of sea water, small fish and krill, then use their powerful tongues to force the water back out through the baleen. The water returns to the sea, but the krill remain in the whale's mouth, ready to be swallowed. By repeating this process again and again, the blue whale is able to eat enough to krill to satisfy its healthy appetite.

These illusive creatures are also well known for another intriguing ability: the males bear the gift of song. Scientists have recorded male blue whale songs that last for days on end, repeating in a series of patterned calls that gradually evolve into new songs. When singing, the whales are frequently floating still in the water with their heads angling down towards the sea floor.

Scientists do not currently have a concrete explanation for why the male blue whales sing their songs, but several predominant theories exist. It is possible, since only the males have the ability to sing, that the songs are used to attract females. Or, the powerful songs could be used to warn other males away and determine territory. Another possibility is that the songs are a type of navigation system, and the whales wait for the sound to bounce back off of deep-sea canyons or islands in order to orient itself in the sea. Although no one knows why the songs are sung, hearing a blue whale singing is always a thrilling and somewhat mystical experience.

Now protected, about 11,000 blue whales are suspected to exist in the world's oceans. As the species begins to make a comeback, scientists will continue to study these majestic marine creatures and to gradually learn more about the intricacies of their lives.

 
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