marine biology


Scientists have finally figured out how whales are able to 'sing' underwater

The physical mechanism they use has been a mystery until now.

Baleen whales include blue, humpback, gray, fin, sei, minke whales and more.

We've long known that baleen whales sing underwater and that males sing in tropical waters to attract females for mating. What we haven't known is how they're able to do it.

When humans make sound underwater, we expel air over through our vocal chords and the air we release rises to the surface as bubbles. But baleen whales don't have vocal chords, and they don't create bubbles when they vocalize. Toothed whales, such as sperm whales, beaked whales, dolphins and porpoises, have an organ in their nasal passages that allows them to vocalize, but baleen whales such as humpback, gray and blue whales don't.

Whales are notoriously difficult to study because of their size and the environment they require, which is why the mechanism behind whale song has remained a mystery for so long. It's not like scientists can just pluck a whale out of the ocean and stick it in an x-ray machine while it's singing to see what's happening inside its body to create the sound. Scientists had theories, but no one really knew how baleen whales sing.

Now, thanks to researchers at the University of Denmark, that mystery has been solved.

To figure it out, a research team blew air through larynxes that had been removed from three juvenile whales that had died after being stranded—one humpback, one minke and one sei whale. They discovered that the design of these "voice boxes" and the mechanism they use to create sound is unique among mammals.

The study, published in the journal Nature, describes a u-shaped structure with a cushion of fat and muscle that allows air to be recycled and prevents water from being inhaled. When air is pushed through it, part of the fatty cushion vibrates and creates the low frequency sound we call whale song.

"We've never seen this in any other animal," lead author Coen Elemans told AFP. "This is a completely novel adaptation, and we think this allowed these large whales to make sound in the water while basically holding their breath."

The low frequency of their singing also sheds light on how human shipping activity can impact these whales' ability to communicate. Whale singing tops out at a frequency of 300 hertz, and whales have to be near the ocean's surface to sing. Since boat sounds range from 30 to 300 hertz and are at the surface of the water, our activity can interfere with whales' communication and reproductive behaviors in ways whales aren't able to adapt to.

"They cannot simply choose to, for example, sing higher to avoid the noise we make in the ocean," Elemans explained to BBC News, adding additional context for why it matters. "[These are some] of the most enigmatic animals that ever lived on the planet. They are amongst the biggest animals, they're smart and they're highly social."

Whale populations have seen a positive turnaround since most countries put an end to commercial whaling, but now the threat is less direct. Since whales live in a mostly acoustic world under the waves, the noise created by boats and shipping vessels can affect their behavior. Since whales can't "outsing" our boat noises, we need to alter our own behavior prevent negatively impacting theirs.

In February 2024, the U.S. Coast Guard launched a "cetacean desk" that alerts regional ferries and commercial vessels in Washington State's Salish Sea to whale sightings in an attempt to prevent collisions and reduce noise when whales are known to be present. The alert system utilizes apps where mariners and civilians can report whale sightings, which are then passed on to captains.

Whale vocalizations are incredibly diverse and wide-ranging, and there's a lot we still don't know about how they communicate. We know that they vocalize to find one another in the murky depths and that males sing to attract females, but more research is needed to learn about the intricacies of their vocal repertoire.

But at least now scientists have a better picture of the "how," which is one step closer to better understanding these massive, magnificent creatures.

Photo by geoff trodd on Unsplash

Manatees, aka "sea cows," are starving to death in Florida so officials are staging an intervention.

Manatees are one of Earth's more oddly beloved creatures. They're cute in a "so ugly they're cute" kind of way, and their bulbous, slowly meandering bodies have earned them the nickname "sea cows." They are a migratory species, and in the U.S. they congregate mainly in the waters of Florida.

Sadly, manatees are also dying at an alarming rate after only being taken off the endangered species list in 2017. During the first nine months of 2021, nearly 10% of Florida's manatee population died—more than double the five-year average. Many of those deaths were due to water quality issues impacting the growth of seagrass, one of the manatee's primary food sources.

Boat strikes, habitat loss and toxic algae blooms also threaten the species, but far too many are dying of simple starvation. According to WUSF, at least 58% of the seagrass in the northern Indian River Lagoon has been lost since 2009, and at least 96% of the Banana River's seagrass is gone. Both river habitats have long served as winter homes for manatees.

To help stave off starvation, officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) have staged a salad intervention of sorts. CNN reports that around 350 manatees are currently coming to a temporary field response station in Cape Canaveral to get their daily servings of romaine and butter lettuce. Since the feeding program started, it has served between 25 and 800 manatees a day.

The sea cows salad bar serves up 3,000 pounds of lettuce a day, and officials say it's helping.

"At this point in time, we have been successful. Manatees are eating the romaine," Ron Mezich of the FWC told CNN. "We are exposing [a] large amount of animals to this food source and we are making a difference." The lettuce has nutrients and digestible carbohydrates the sea cows need, he said.

The program has been funded largely through donations from the public and is slated to continue through March.

Hopefully, the FWC will see improvement in the manatee mortality numbers as a result of its efforts. As of February 11, there have already been 261 manatee deaths in the state, though most are still awaiting necropsies to determine the cause of death.

Everyone can take part in helping these gentle giants have a healthy future by following guidance for wise use of waterways, supporting legislation for wildlife protection, reducing and cleaning up pollution along beaches and waterways and encouraging leaders to take meaningful action on climate change.

Don't try to throw your own salad in the ocean to feed the manatees, though. Officials recommend leaving the lettuce to experts.

Zoologist and photographer Conor Ryan spotted 1,000 fin whales in one spot.

Conor Ryan has seen his fair share of whales, and his Twitter handle—@whale_nerd—isn't just a cutesy nickname. Ryan was just 14 years old when he published his first peer-reviewed scientific paper on killer whales with his best friend, Peter Wilson, in 2001. As a wildlife photographer, a zoologist specializing in marine biology and an expert in baleen whales and small cetaceans, he knows when he's looking at something special in the sea.

In other words, when Conor Ryan says his mind is "completely blown" by a whale sighting, you know it's a big deal. Seeing 1,000 fin whales at once? That's a very big deal.

Fin whales are the second-largest animal in the world, second only to the blue whale. In the 20th century, fin whales were hunted to near extinction before commercial whaling was outlawed. Nearly 725,000 were killed in the Southern Hemisphere alone in the mid- 1900s, and though whaling is no longer a threat, fin whales are still on the endangered species list.

Fin whales get their name from an easy-to-spot fin on their backs. Imagine seeing 1,000 of any endangered species in one location, much less 1,000 of these 85-foot, 80-ton whales all feeding in a single location.

Ryan captured the scene on film and shared it on Twitter, writing, "We found about 1000 fin whales over a 5x5 mile area off South Orkney. Blue and humpback also mixed in. Mind completely blown." The video shows a cluster of whales spouting as far as the eye can see.

According to The Guardian, Ryan spotted the whales from the National Geographic Endurance polar cruiser, in an area between the South Orkney Islands and the Antarctic peninsula. Their ship was in an area with four large krill fishing vessels, which explains the feeding frenzy.

Ryan said it might be "one of the largest aggregations of fin whales ever documented” and that his estimate of 1,000 whales was a conservative one.

“Words fail me,” Ryan told The Guardian. “I have seen maybe 100 fins here before in previous years. Thousands of chinstrap penguins, petrels, and albatrosses, too … It was unusually calm weather and unusually good visibility.”

Though commercial whaling laws have greatly reduced the decimation of whale populations we saw in the 1900s, whales still face threats from human activity. According to NOAA, the main threat to fin whales today is vessel strikes. Cargo and cruise boat ships have increased in number in the past few decades, which increases the risk of running into whales, but they aren't the only ships that pose a threat. Last year, two dead fin whales had to be dislodged from the hull of an Australian Navy ship after it pulled into the naval pier in San Diego. The fact that they are still considered endangered means we have to stay vigilant about their protection.

But as author Philip Hoare wrote in The Guardian, "In a world constrained by woe and threats to democracy…1,000 fin whales can’t help but lift our hearts." Such a number is decidedly good news, which is always worth celebrating and which provides a beacon of hope that we can make impactful changes that help our planet when we choose to.

Screenshots via @castrowas95/Twitter

In the Pacific Northwest, orca sightings are a fairly common occurrence. Still, tourists and locals alike marvel when a pod of "sea pandas" swim by, whipping out their phones to capture some of nature's most beautiful and intelligent creatures in their natural habitat.

While orcas aren't a threat to humans, there's a reason they're called "killer whales." To their prey, which includes just about everything that swims except humans, they are terrifying apex predators who hunt in packs and will even coordinate to attack whales several times their own size.

So if you're a human alone on a little platform boat, and a sea lion that a group of orcas was eyeing for lunch jumps onto your boat, you might feel a little wary. Especially when those orcas don't just swim on by, but surround you head-on.

Watch exactly that scenario play out (language warning, if you've got wee ones you don't want f-bombed):

Ummm, yeah. An orca sighting is one thing, but this is a whole other story. Orcas have been known to knock large prey off of icebergs, so the whole "orcas don't hurt humans" thing doesn't feel super reassuring in this scenario.

The footage came from TikTok user @nutabull, whose now-deleted account stated she was from Vancouver Island.

The second video is even more intimidating.

The viral video sparked a debate about whether the sea lion should be kicked off the boat or not. The woman kept telling the sea lion it "had to go" with a frank "Sorry, buddy, that's life," message, though she never actively tried to push it off. Many commenters joked about yeeting the sea lion off the boat to avoid a potentially disastrous encounter with the orcas. Others were on #teamsealion, saying they wouldn't have the heart to boot the poor thing.

The reality is orcas eat sea lions—the circle of life and whatnot. Most of us just don't find ourselves in the middle of that circle, having to figure out whether the apex predators surrounding our boat are going to patiently wait for their lunch to come back or take it upon themselves to bump it back into the water.

Thankfully for the woman, the sea lion seemed to decide on its own that its options were limited and dove back in to take its chances with the orcas. But phew, that encounter would be harrowing for just about anyone.

Best of luck, sea lion. Hope you're an exceptional swimmer.