Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 1, 2009

Talking Fat

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:29 pm

The Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut has the largest Beluga Whale exhibit in North America (outside of the wild, that is). I visited with the facility’s three whales while in the company of a whole gang of fellow naturalists last week. Normally reporting on a zoo or aquarium visit is not my usual fare but this occasion offered something a bit different. We were allowed to go behind the fence and directly approach the waters edge where these wonderful white beasts live. One of the belugas, a milky white male named Inuk (“the old man”), spotted us and immediately approached to get a better view of the new set of humans entering his realm. He repeatedly rose his head out of the water and eyed us from only ten feet away and started to talk . Unfortunately none of us were fluent, or even remotely acquainted with his language, so we simply laughed back.

Apparently confirmed in his view that two leggers are incapable of speech, Inuk soon returned to his underwater ways and remained silent for the rest of our visit. Belugas are the only whale species equipped with a flexible neck (all other whales have fused vertebrae) and I’m confident he shook his head at our vocal ineptitude. Fortunately this human was equipped with a recorder and I was able to capture a snippet of his speech (listen here). Inuk’s utterings consisted of a set of two vocalizations followed by a breath of air from his blowhole. You’ll need to play it several times to get a full sense of this and you’ll need to excuse the giggling sapien noises along the way.

I considered this a rare opportunity to hear whaletalk first hand – without an underwater microphone or water column in the way. All whales vocalize and most use ultrasonic sounds to navigate. Their incredibly intricate sounds are meant for aqueous transmittal. Sound waves travel 1 mile/sec. in the water which is four times faster than air transmission. Water creatures, because they always have a full set of cell phone bars and unlimited minutes, tend to be a very chatty bunch. However, there is something magical about hearing some of these sounds dividing the dry air and striking the ear of a confirmed landlubber like I.

Belugas are creatures of the high Arctic seas that surround the north pole and kiss the northern shores of both North America and
Siberia. They get their name from the Russian word for “white one” but they are commonly known by sailors as “canaries of the sea” because of their talkative nature. Depending on who you reference, these bleached whales are capable of 11 different sounds ranging from whistles and clicks to a variety of trills,  mews, and bell-like tones.  Not a single one of those sounds is made with the aide of vocal chords or through the open mouth. Flipper (another species of toothed whale) wasn’t really talking in those old T.V. shows!

All toothed whales, beluga included, essentially talk through their blowholes. They control the air flow between a set of inner air sacs and then project these vibrations through an oily fat structure called the melon.  On the beluga, the melon is easily visible as the bulge on the forehead (see below). Incredibly enough, the whale actually alters the shape of this fatty melon in order to project the sound with pinpoint accuracy at a selected target- whether it be a food source or a bunch of ignorant two-leggers. You could actually see this oval mass vibrate and quiver as the speech was delivered.

Oddly enough, belugas do not have an open ear canal for listening to their own sounds. Their auditory canal is narrow and plugged with wax. The canal doesn’t even connect with the ear drum. Instead, incoming sounds are transmitted to the middle ear through a fat mass found in a cavity on the lower jaw. As you can see Belugas are fatheads in every sense of the word.

While we are on the subject of whale ears, one of the more fascinating aspects of our backroom aquarium tour was the chance to see “Steve.” Steve is a six foot nematode (roundworm) that was found in the ear cavity of a dead Fin Whale (see here and here). If you look at these pictures, by the way, Steve is the fellow in the container and not the one standing next to it. I realize this has nothing to do with belugas but I just wanted to share this for the sake of science.

At any rate, the only probable way that I could have communicated with Inuk’s inner ear would have been to stick my head underwater and grunt. Not only would that have been embarrassing to my fellow naturalists but would probably have resulted in some horribly disrespectful comment directed towards an intelligent being. Again, I remind you that I don’t know whalenese. Long ago the ancient Finlanders used to sing songs using a peculiar murmuring voice as a way to persuade belugas to come close to shore. Perhaps I can learn a few of these songs and be ready the next time I encounter a patient beluga.

1 Comment »

  1. Fascinating! Reading about the whales’ communication equipment reminded me of a trip I took to the Bronx (or was it Brooklyn?) Zoo several years ago. Like you, we were on a behind-the-scenes tour and our guide was telling us about an episode when they moved the elephants. One was left behind, and the others from their new (temporary) abode sent out subsonic calls to the missing one that shook the concrete walls and vibrated through the chests of the people. It’s amazing stuff.

    Was this trip one of the field trips at the NAI conference in NH last month?

    Comment by Ellen — December 2, 2009 @ 11:48 am

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