Friday, February 27, 2009

New Nat Geo Special: Kingdom Of The Blue Whale!

Heart the size of a Mini Cooper.
Mouth big enough to hold 100 people.
Longer than a basketball court.
Weighing as much as 25 large elephants.
It is the largest creature ever to inhabit the earth.
But we know precious little about it.

That's right, folks! Yours truly (and a few other awesome bloggers) have been given the opportunity to screen National Geographic Channel’s new TV program “Kingdom of the Blue Whale,” which premieres Sunday, March 8, at 8 p.m. ET/PT, thanks to a very kind and wonderful Digital Consultant, Minjae Ormes.

Instead of posting repetitive reviews, Daniel Brown at BiochemicalSoul, Allie at Oh For The Love Of Science! and I decided to split up the 2 hour special between us. Daniel's awesome post about the effects, cinematography, and overall appearance of the special is already up. As the conservationist, Allie will cover those aspects of the special. Which leaves me, the marine biologist, to get into the nitty gritty science and physiology. So I guess I'd better get started!

Go to any natural history or science museum with a dinosaur skeleton and you will hear people oohing and ahhing at their immense size. How big and amazing the dinosaurs were! But we have a creature far bigger and more amazing living today, and yet few have ever seen it. Let me give you the numbers: The largest Tyrannosaurus only weighed in at 1/30th the tonnage of a blue whale. The largest herbivores ever discovered? Still only 1/3rd the whale's mass. Here's a scale image that shows exactly how giagantic these creatures are:

Despite being larger than any creature that has ever lived on our planet, we know next to nothing about them. No one has ever witnessed them mating or giving birth. No one even knows where they do these things. They eat an unfathomable thousands of pounds of krill a day - the weight of a semi truck or two in miniscule shrimp-like creatures - and we have no idea how they find them.

Here's what we do know. Blue Whales, like all whales and dolphins, are cetaceans. The Cetacean lineage were once land animals, related to hoofed animals like llamas. About 50 million years ago, some small carnivorous hoofed animals tested out the water, and gradually adapted to aquatic life. By about 40 million years ago, cetaceans were fully marine. Sometime after that, around 30 to 15 million years ago, cetaceans split into the two major groups: the odontocetes, or toothed whales (including dolphins), and the mysticetes, or baleen whales. It's to the latter group that the immense Blue Whale belongs.


As a mysticete, Blues have large fibrous plates instead of teeth that they use to filter small organisms out of the water. Mystecetes are the bigger group of whales, including such well-known species as Humpbacks and Right whales. Because of their immense sizes, baleen whales were the species of choice for whalers, and remain so today. The Blue Whale and its closest kin, the Fin, Sei, and Minke whales, were favorite targets of whalers, for their size meant more blubber and meat. The Blue's smaller cousins, the Minke and Sei whales, are still hunted by the Japanese commercial "research" whalers today.

Because of whaling, Blue Whale populations are less than 1/100th of what they once were. Like other large mammals, Blue Whales are slow to mature and reproduce, making it hard for them to rebound from such drastic population cuts. A species which used to number in the hundreds of thousands in the Antarctic hovers in the thousands throughout the world. Is it any wonder, then, that they are so hard to find?

What this special shows, in amazing and breathtaking video, is how hard it is to study Blue Whales. No matter how big they may be, blue whales are like needles in a haystack of ocean. And even if you find them, the research itself is difficult. Blues only surface briefly to breathe before plunging back down into the depths. They're fast, too - especially compared to the small boats needed to get close enough to tag and collect samples from such immense beasts. They can travel 100 miles in a day. And even still there are other difficulties - tags fall off, animals die, and whatever can go wrong often does when it comes to scientific research.

Despite the troubles, National Geographic researchers were determined to learn more about these hidden giants. It's only through knowledge that we can identify the best ways to preserve these whales. This special documents their travels - the ups and downs, and most importantly, their discoveries.

I don't want to give too much away - it's a special truly worth watching. You'll end up in awe of these massive majesties and angry at the state of their populations. And all the while you'll get a fascinating look into the brain and muscle that goes behind marine biological research.

One thing that particularly stuck out that I can't help but talk about, however, was the discussion of Blue/Fin whale hybrids. There have been at least 11 documented cases of these pairings. Fin whales are the second largest whales in the world, and are cousins to Blues. But Fin whales aren't protected like Blue whales are - they're still hunted in icelandic waters for cash "research" like the Minke and Sei whales are by the Japanese. If these pairings become more common, there's no protection for their offspring, which are mistaken for Fin whales.

What's so strange and therefore intriguing about these species mating is that Fin and Blue whales are as related to each other as we are to gorillas. It's possible that Blue Whale numbers are so low that they're breeding with other species to survive - even one that's quite distant, genetically. Can you imagine a human-gorilla hybrid? Even if it is genetically viable (who knows?), I can't picture overcoming such a gulf of differences. Yet the Blue and Fin whales can, and do. What does this mean for both species? Is this evolution in action? The same issue has arisen with Polar Bears - they've started breeding with Grizzlies. It seems a startling trend for endangered species, and one I am very alarmed by. It's not every day that creatures step backward (so to speak) and rejoin evolutionary branches that split thousands, if not millions of years ago. If anything, it seems a desperate call which reveals just how in trouble these animals really are.

Kingdom of the Blue Whale is truly a wonderful treat. It's a unique insight into a world that we so rarely get to glimpse, and it will truly pull on your heart strings.

Oh, and did I mention it's narrated by Tom Selleck? You totally have to watch it just for that.


liliannattel said...

It sounds like an awesome program. I'm not sure that I'd describe the blue/fin pairing as a step back. Yes it's a sign of low numbers and environmental degradation and that in itself is worrisome. But the fact that they are able to mate with other species rather than just fade into oblivion is somehow, to me, hopeful.

ohfortheloveofscience.com said...

what, I don't have a last name?

southernfriedscientist said...

fungi get bigger

Eric said...

Great review! (all three of you) I'll see if I can score a cable connection for that night.

Allie I thought your last name was "Oh For The Love Of Science!" A totally cool last name!

Are the Blue/Fin offspring fertile? Probably too early to know/too few examples known.

Christie Lynn said...

As far as I know, they've only IDed the hybrids after they've been killed, so I don't think they know if they're fertile.

Eric said...

I searched a very little bit and found the Cipriano and Palumbi letter in Nature (PDF) which describes the life history of one of the hybrids, #26, which was killed in 1989 and meat from it was purchased in Japan in 1993. It was a sterile male from a blue-whale mother and a fin whale father, "with testes weighing only 2 kilograms". Interesting...