Sperm Whales May Use Their Head As A Battering Ram To Sink Ships

Posted: Apr 5 2016, 11:46pm CDT | by , Updated: Apr 6 2016, 9:53pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News


Sperm Whales May Use their Head as a Battering Ram to Sink Ships
Credit: Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts/Bridgeman Images

A new study addresses a controversial hypothesis regarding the head-butting ability of sperm whales.

A giant whale rising up from the depths of the ocean to destroy a ship with its head may sound like something out of science fiction movie, but many claim it may actually happen.

Sperm whale’s hammering ability has been hotly debated for decades. Famous novel Moby Dick, published in 1951, also revolved around the same idea where an enraged sperm whale uses its enormous forehead as a battering ram to sink a ship and split it apart. There is no scientific evidence available to prove the theory. 

“The forehead of sperm whale is one of the strangest structures in the animal kingdom,” said Dr Olga Panagiotopoulou, an expert in the anatomy, bone biology and mechanics of large animals from University of Queensland. 

“Internally, the whale’s forehead is composed of two large oil filled sacs stacked on top of each other, known as the spermaceti organ and the junk sacs. The oil in the upper spermaceti organ was the main target of the whaling industry in the early 19th century.”

Researchers suggest that the forehead of sperm whale not only distinguishes them from the rest of animals but there is a huge difference between male and female heads as well. Male sperm whale’s heads are much larger than those of females. 

“Such difference between the sexes are commonly found in species in which males fight to compete for females.” Olga said.

The controversial hypothesis regarding the battering ram function of the sperm whale head has been around since 1820 when a terrifying tale of sperm whale’s head-butting and sinking a ship was swirling around in the US.

“After a large male rammed and sink his ship in the Pacific in 1820, whaler Owen Chase described the whale’s head as admirably designed for this mode of attack. The theory was instrumental in inspiring Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick, but until our research, its mechanical feasibility had never been addressed,” said Olga.

“The scientific community received the ramming hypothesis with reluctance. This was mainly because the front part of the sperm whale head houses sensitive anatomical structures that are essential for sonar communication between whales, and they would be in harm's way in a ramming event."

The head of the whale plays an important role in transmitting sonar clicks and communication with each other.

The key question is still: could sperm whales generate enough force in a ramming attack to completely destroy a boat that is four to five times the mass of the whale and still remain unharmed?

To test how the sperm whale’s head might withstand ramming impacts, a team of international researchers from U.K., U.S., Australia and Japan utilized engineering principles and created computer models. They found that whale ramming events may cause fatal fractures. 

“But our findings show that connective tissue partitions within the junk of the sperm whale forehead may function as a shock absorber. This mechanism is important to reduce impact stress and protect the skull from failure,” said Olga.

Nevertheless, the aggressive ramming behavior is rarely observed in male sperm whale but it is common in bottle nosed whales, killer whales, narwhales and pilot whales. 

The details of the study were published in Science Mag.

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Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.




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