Everyone back in the pool!: From artiodactyl to cetacean

24 08 2007

[Note: This post isn’t quite as comprehensive as I would have liked, and I want to add some more illustrations from my other computer, so don’t be surprised if it changes a bit over the weekend. Still, I hope you enjoy it!]

When I was in the 4th grade, I took one of my first trips to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, MD, and I was absolutely in awe of the building and the creatures it contained. Although I can’t remember much from that early visit, I do recall one particular exhibit on the 2nd floor just above the food court. Sunk into a wall was a glass case, and in that glass case was a replica of half of the body of a Beluga whale, form the tip of the tail to about halfway up the back. Sticking out of that case was a lever, and when pushed up or down the whale’s tail moved up or down in the water in the display; I was definitely impressed by the amount of power it took to get the tail to move at even a constant, slow rate of speed. Unfortunately the display isn’t there anymore, but it did spark my imagination about how evolution could have made an animal that swam moving its spine up and down rather than side-to-side like a shark. How could dolphins and sharks be so similar, but so different in the way they moved?

One of the most celebrated evolutionary narratives is that of the first fish/tetrapod (“fishapod”) crawling out of the “primordial ooze” onto dry land. Even though we are only distantly related to such creatures through common ancestry, the move from the water to a more terrestrial habitat is regarded as one of the greatest evolutionary innovations ever to occur, paving the way for all the great tetrapods of subsequent ages. In popular culture, this is where many satirical (and sometimes serious) “March of Progress” like diagrams start, usually featuring some goofy-looking fish with legs on, monkeys seemingly having evolved from such creatures in the blink of an eye (thus allowing humans, in turn, to evolve). This view, of course, doesn’t do any justice to the larger evolutionary truth of the situations, and if we are to understand why dolphins and whales swim the way they do we need to at least start with the evolution of early amphibious vertebrates.

Although the living coelacanth Latimeria chalumnae did not give rise to the first tetrapods (it’s closest fossil relative seems to be the coelacanth Macropoma from the late Cretaceous of England and Czechoslovakia), it is a sarcopterygiian fish and so it can give us some clues as to what adaptations these “lobe-finned” fish had that allowed them to evolve and colonize more terrestrial habitats. Outside of having the proper bone structure that would provide antecedents for the limbs of later tetrapods, sarcopterygiian fish can move their pectoral and pelvic fins independently of each other, almost in a walking type of motion in the water. This video, shot recently in Indonesia, shows this type of motion (although the fish in the video is trying to stay in one place more than swim away);

This type of locomotion, based upon the movement of the fins/limbs rather than the spine/tail, proved to the be precursor of early tetrapod movement. With the limbs carried out to the sides rather than under the body, the head would have to be swung back and forth in the same manner that many fish swam, the position of the arms and legs making it impossible to do otherwise. This sort of side-to-side S-shape movement can still be seen today in living amphibians like salamanders;

The next big advancement that we are concerned with is the transition from carrying the arms on the side of the body to carrying them underneath the body, allowing organisms that were adapted in this manner to be much more active. This change was originally said to have been the main reason why dinosaurs succeeded when so many other creatures of the early Triassic did not, although recent finds like Effigia have shown that dinosaurs were not alone in developing a bipedal stance. The group that we’re primarily concerned with here, however, is not archosaurs but mammals and their close relatives. While many synapsids like Dimetrodon still had a sprawling stance inherited from its amniote ancestors, by the Cretaceous mammals were carrying their legs directly underneath their bodies, or at least very nearly so (thanks for the correction johannes). This change allowed the animals to move away from a side-to-side wrenching of the vertebral column on the horizontal axis and allow the spine to undulate on the vertical axis, allowing for faster and more efficient movement. The success of this kind of movement can perhaps best be exemplified today by the fastest terrestrial mammal on the planet, the cheetah;

Going back to the Triassic, however, mammals were still evolving and skittering about while dinosaurs, plesiosaurs, icthyosaurs, pterosaurs, and the other superstars of the Mesozoic were undergoing their own evolution. The archosaurs that returned to the water seemed to undertake at least two strategies, plesiosaurs primarily using their flippers for propulsion like modern-day sea turtles while icthyosaurs started off with more snaky, catshark-like motions, the most derived forms becoming evolutionarily convergent with lamnid sharks (like the Shortfin Mako) and tuna. Mosasaurs, which arrived late on the scene, seemed to employ something of a mix of the two strategies, using long bodies with powerful tails and flippers for propulsion. The earliest-known relatives of living whales, however, would not be progressing on their own aquatic evolution until about 13 million years after the last dinosaurs died out at the K/T boundary, the great marine reptiles being long gone by the time of Pakicetus during the Eocene.

Old Pakicetus
Outdated reconstruction of Pakicetus, and how I was first introduced to the creature in a children’s book.

Modern reconstruction of Pakicetus
[Illustration by Carl Buell, and taken from http://www.neoucom.edu/Depts/Anat/Pakicetid.html]

The problem with the evolution of whales was that their fossil history was largely a mystery until relatively recently. Charles Darwin, in the first edition of his landmark On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, hypothesized that carnivorous mammals could be adapted to an aquatic lifestyle given enough time. In Chapter 6, Darwin wrote;

In North America the black bear was seen by Hearne swimming for hours with widely open mouth, thus catching, like a whale, insects in the water. Even in so extreme a case as this, if the supply of insects were constant, and if better adapted competitors did not already exist in the country, I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more and more aquatic in their structure and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale.

This passage, although there is no real fault in it, gave Darwin plenty of grief as many thought he was suggesting that black bears had evolved into whales. It is easy to tell from the passage, however, that this is not the case, and a letter to Charles Lyell dated December 10, 1859 further shows that Darwin was not trying to prove such a narrow point. Referring to an interview with the “bitter & sneering” Richard Owen about his book, Darwin writes;

Lastly I thanked him for Bear & Whale criticism, & said I had struck it out. — “Oh have you, well I was more struck with this than any other passage; you little know of the remarkable & essential relationship between bears & whales”. —

I am to send him the reference, & by Jove I believe he thinks a sort of Bear was the grandpapa of Whales!

Indeed, the reaction to this passage was certainly overblown (Darwin may yet be vindicated to some extent as some variety of bear seem to be a fair candidate for the ancestor of pinnipeds) and even after the criticism Darwin still maintained that the process of changing a bear into a more aquatic animal is possible. Still, a suitable ancestor for whales was elusive, even the great Basilosaurus offering no definite answers. Discovered in the early 1800’s, fossils of the whale Basilosaurus (=”Zeuglodon“) were found to be exceedingly common in southern states like Alabama, Richard Owen determining the fossil’s mammalian affinities only after Dr. Richard Harlan had deemed the remains to be reptilian and named the creature Basilosaurus. By 1845 enough material had been found and collected by Albert Koch to tour the country with a 114-foot-long skeleton of a “sea monster” named “Hydrarchos”, which was later revealed to be a composite monstrosity made from 5 different specimens of Basilosaurus and other species.

Koch’s “Hydrarchos”. Via Wikipedia.

“Hydrarchos”, the undignified beast. Via Interrogating Nature.

Basilo Knight
One of Charles R. Knight’s renditions of “Zeuglodon” (1913). From the book Monster Hunters

Given that Basilosaurus was discovered and brought to attention long before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, one would expect him to make some mention of it in the book, and indeed he does. On page 349 Darwin writes;

The cetaceans or whales are widely different from all other mammals, but the tertiary Zeuglodon and Squalodon, which have been placed by some naturalists in an order by themselves, are considered by Professor Huxley to be undoubtedly cetaceans, “and to constitute connecting links with the aquatic carnivora.”

From what I have been able to find, however, Darwin was unsure about whether “Zeuglodon” was an intermediate forms within the cetaceans, and he wrote to Huxley in October of 1871 to ask his friend’s opinion on the matter so that he might include a mention in the 6th edition of the book (which is the edition, I assume, that contains the above-quoted passage). Although the letters themselves are not yet online in their entiretly, it does appear that Huxley replied that there was little doubt of the connection between the ancient whales and living ones, whales probably being evolved from animals like living “carnivora” (dogs, cats, bears, civets, etc.). The problem is, however, that even though Basilosaurus showed differentiation in its teeth and greatly reduced hind limbs, it was still much closer in appearance to living whales than the ancestors of the group, only giving hints as to where to look. For almost 100 years the mystery of cetacean origins would remain.

In 1981 Pakicetus was named and described from fragmentary elements of the jaw and back of the skull by Philip Gingerich and Donald Russell , the parts of the skull that were recovered undoubtedly showing its cetacean affinities. This helped to fill in the story of cetacean evolution, and it seemed that the most likely candidates for the ancestors of whales were hoofed carnivorous mammals (“wolves with hooves”) named mesonychids. Still, the problem with Pakicetus was that so little of it had been found, and that for some time it was seen as something of a stubby proto-whale (see illustration above). Not until 2001, when more complete skeletons were found, were researchers able to have a look at the true form of the animal.

Regardless of whether whales evolved from artiodactyls or mesonychids (a controversy I’ll return to later), the discovery of the rest of the skeleton of Pakicetus is important as it gives us some clues as to how different animals might employ different strategies in returning to the water. Looking at the skeleton, Pakicetus was not a big, robust predator like a bear. It was far more like a dog or wolf (the reconstruction sometimes makes me want to say “rat on stilts”), the limbs and paws being relatively thin. Even though I’m sure Pakicetus could’ve doggie-paddled if it wanted to, this might not have been a very efficient or effective way at moving through the water, especially if you’re going to try and catch anything or use your mouth very much. Undulating the spine and using the limbs to give some extra push in moving the body forward would have been a more effective way to move for an animal that wanted to hunt in the water, and this is exactly the kind of motion we see in river otters (like these giant river otters at the Philadelphia Zoo) today;

This sort of stage in the aquatic evolution of cetaceans makes sense given the body plans of their ancestors, although it probably didn’t fully come into play until creatures like Ambulocetus or its descendants evolved. The precursor to the otter-like movement may have been something employed by other living mammals like muskrats, using the hind feet as the main propulsive appendages. Then again, muskrats and other mammals in rivers and lakes use various strategies to move through the water, so the ancestors of cetaceans probably went through a highly experimental stage before a certain type of locomotion started to be more firmly established.

As discussed earlier, mammals and their relatives were carrying their legs underneath their bodies and not out to the sides since the late Permian, and so the motion of their spine adapted to move in an up-and-down motion rather than side-to-side like many living reptiles and amphibians. Thus Pakicetus would not have evolved a tail for side-to-side motion like icthyosaurs or sharks because they would have had to entirely change the way their spinal column was set up first. At this point some of you might raise the point that living pinnipeds like seals and sea lions move in a side-to-side motion underwater. That may be true on a superficial level, but pinnipeds primarily use their modified limbs (hindlimbs in seals and forelimbs in sea lions) to move through the water; they aren’t relying on propulsion from a large fluke or caudal fin providing most of the propulsion with the front fins/limbs providing lift and allowing for change in direction. This diversity of strategies in living marine mammals suggests differing situations encountered by differing ancestors with their own suites of characteristics, but in the case of whales it seems that their ancestors were best fitted to move by undulating their spinal column and using their limbs to provide some extra propulsion/direction.

Sea Lion
Sea Lion, taken at Sea World, Orlando (July 2006)

Looking at the vertebrae of icthyosaurs, sharks, and dolphins, it’s easy to see how mammalian vertebrae were modified to be useful for the mode of swimming exhibited by dolphins. Dolphins, unlike sharks and icthyosaurs, dolphins have two very large processes coming out of the sides of the vertebral centrum (the round part from which the processes branch), with another process sticking up fairly high. This increased surface area allows for much more muscle attachment than in sharks or icthyosaurs, being adapted to the up-and-down motion of the tail flukes. Early whales with increased surface area for muscle attachment along the spine for this kind of movement would be able to have more powerful tail strokes and probably move faster than others, natural selection modifying the spinal column of cetaceans to make the most of their arrangement. Also, the cervical vertebrae of many cetaceans are fused together, stabilizing the neck. If you’re going to be moving through the water with any amount of speed, it’d be a disadvantage to have a long neck with lots of joints that could be stressed or even broken by certain motions, so there would be an advantage in any move towards stability.

Even so, the skeletal specializations in modern cetaceans were just being formed back in the Eocene. Pakicetus, for example, appears as though it would have been a poor swimmer (as I had mentioned before), although its location makes it clear that it had an affinity for freshwater habitats. Also, the bones of Pakicetus seem to be compacted, thus making them relatively heavy, and some have thought that this condition could have acted almost like a diver’s weight belt or ballast (Thewissen & Williams, 2002). The next stage that we are aware of, exemplified by Ambulocetus, appeared to be much more at home in the water, although still far from its later relatives. Shifting towards shallow marine habitats (possibly bays or estuaries), Ambulocetus may have used its feet to swim through the water, and although some have suggested that it would have been too awkward to catch prey, I don’t think an Ambulocetus that actively hunted would be a foregone conclusion, especially if it swam with undulations of its spine as well as with its feet. Ambulocetus is also of interest in that it has characters in its lower jaw that relate to the lower jaw and ear morphology of living cetaceans, the lower jaw of dolphins being extremely important in receiving sounds during echolocation. Being that we know that the mammalian ear developed from the multiple jaw bones of their synapsid ancestors, it is easy to understand how the lower jaw and hearing mechanisms became so related in cetaceans and their ancestors.

There were various other varieties of archaeocetes, and later forms like Basilosaurus would take the successful early marine forms to extremes by adding and elongating their vertebrae, but I think vertebral undulation as a mode of swimming long preceded the known expression of this mode in the late Eocene whales like Dorudon and Basilosaurus. The evolution of modern whales from these forms is another story altogether (more of modifications of forms that were fully marine by that time), but once again we need to go back to the origins of this group to find some more controversy. A number of years ago, while I was still in elementary school, I remember seeing an episode of the TLC series “PaleoWorld” which featured whale evolution. The show definitely made the connection between mesonychid carnivores as being the ancestors to whales, showing one such creature (I assume it was a DinoMotion replica of Andrewsarchus peering contemplatively into a shallow pool). This seemed reasonable enough, Huxley’s idea of whales evolving from mammalian carnivores being somewhat vindicated, but then came a serious of important papers that shook up the phylogenetic tree.

What needs to be understood before we proceed, however, is that the change of ancestry from mesonychids to artiodactyls did not cause evolutionary theory to come crashing down. Mesonychids are closely related to both whales and artiodactyls, but in this case just being “close” doesn’t mean that they’re the right ancestors. To put this in perspective, the change of ancestry from mesonychids to artiodactyls isn’t nearly as big as the change from the hypothesis that birds evolved from pseudosuchian archosaurs like Ornithosuchus to the modern understanding that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs. Even so, the changes have caused a good amount of controversy. The support for placing cetaceans within the clade Cetartiodactyla, with the hippopotamus and its relatives belonging to a sister group (mesonychids being just outside the new grouping). Morphological studies of the ankle bones and certain skull characters support this relationship as well, suggesting that living cetaceans and hippos shared a common, perhaps semi-aquatic, ancestor in their distant past.

But what happened to the hind limbs of cetaceans? If cetaceans evolved from land-dwelling ancestors, we would expect to see some change or vestige in the fossil record if not in living groups. In fact, that’s just what we have. While archaeocetes like Ambulocetus clearly still used their fore and hind limbs, by the time the group evolved into whales like Basilosaurus the hind limbs were greatly reduced, natural selection working towards eliminating the non-functioning appendages that would only increase drag. Although the reduction of the hind limbs in adults have been reduced or eliminated (save for a few cetaceans with atavisms like small pelvic fins or leg bones in their bodies in their pelvic region), the development of living cetaceans has also shown us that they once had another set of limbs. During development, dolphin embryos actually develop limb buds, but those that would normally become hind limbs or pelvic flippers stop developing and are reabsorbed into the body, showing that it’s not a matter of removing a trait but rather controlling it through development (which also explains the aforementioned atavisms now and then; sometimes the limb production goes forward, just at a stunted rate).

The relationship between cetaceans and artiodactyls (which encompass many groups of mammals like cows, pigs, giraffe, camel, deer, hippos, etc.) however, has cause some creationists to come up with some rather absurd illustrations in order to show evolution to be incorrect. No scientist that I know of is suggesting that a hippo turned into a whale or that a cow turned into a whale, unless you think cows looked something like Pakicetus (and I wouldn’t want to try milking one if I came across it on the shore of some Eocene lake).

My writing here is far from exhaustive or as in-depth as I would like (I need to learn some more physiology/anatomy, for certain), but I hope that I’ve given a fair superficial summation of how evolution can get from fish to tetrapod to whale, only a snippet of the evolution story of modern cetaceans that spans hundreds of millions of years. Even so, the journey out of the water and back into it, over and over again, is one of the most compelling evolutionary narratives known, especially given the intelligence and grace acheived by the descendants of some Eocene artiodactyls walking by the water’s edge.

Sea Lions
Sea Lions that were playing “King of the Rock” at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. (March 2007)


Bejder, L. and Hall, B.K. “Limbs in whales and limblessness in other vertebrates: mechanisms of
evolutionary and developmental transformation and loss
” EVOLUTION & DEVELOPMENT 4:6, 445–458 (2002)

Buchholtz, E.A. “Vertebral osteology and swimming style in living and fossil
whales (Order: Cetacea)
” J. Zool., Lond. (2001) 253, 175±190

Fish, F.E. “A mechanism for evolutionary transition in swimming mode by mammals” Secondary Adaptation of Tetrapods to Life in Water, J.-M. hlazin & V. de Buffrenil (eds.): pp. 261-287

” Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 23(4):991–996, December 2003

Gingerich, P.D. et al.Origin of Whales from Early Artiodactyls: Hands and Feet of Eocene Protocetidae from PakistanScience, 2239 (2001); 293

Gingerich, P.D. and Russel, D.E. “PAKICETUS INACHUS, A NEW ARCHAEOCETE (MAMMALIA, CETACEA) FROM THE EARLY-MIDDLE EOCENE KULDANA FORMATION OF KOHAT (PAKISTAN)” Museum of Paleontology, The University of Michigan, VOL. 25, NO. 11, p. 235-246

Milinkovich, M.C. “DNA-DNA hybridizations support ungulate ancestry of
” J. evol. Biol. 5: 149-160 (1992)


O’Leary, M.A. “The Phylogenetic Position of Cetaceans: Further Combined Data Analyses, Comparisons with the Stratigraphic Record and a Discussion of Character Optimization” AMER. ZOOL., 41:487–506 (2001)

Thewissen, J.G.M. and Fish, F.E. “Locomotor Evolution in the Earliest Cetaceans: Functional Model, Modern Analogues, and Paleontological Evidence” Paleobiology, Vol. 23, No. 4. (Autumn, 1997), pp. 482-490.

Thewissen, J.G.M. and Williams, E.M. “THE EARLY RADIATIONS OF CETACEA (MAMMALIA): Evolutionary Pattern and Developmental Correlations” Annu. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 2002. 33:73–90

Watson, D.M.S. “The Evolution of the Mammalian Ear” Evolution, Vol. 7, No. 2. (Jun., 1953), pp. 159-177.

Mmmmm….. blue…

6 08 2007

Why not kick off the week with another great carnival? Malaria, Bedbugs, Sea Lice, and Sunsets has the 3rd incarnation of the Carnival of the Blue, and it’s definitely worth a look.

Photos from Cape May, NJ

15 07 2007


Yesterday, my wife and I left at 3 AM to arrive at the most southern point/beach in New Jersey, arriving just after the sun began to rise.


And here is my lovely wife in the early morning light;


We also encountered some local wildlife before even setting foot on the beach or pathways along the dunes. Many birds rested in their large birdhouses, and a small toad sat on the bench outside the restrooms;




Once we set foot on the beach, there were already plenty of Laughing Gulls skittering about on the sand and trying to snatch some bait from early-bird fishermen;

Laughing Gull

Tracey and I also noted a strange blob bobbing about in the surf. It turned out to be a dead jellyfish;


We saw many more of the decomposing cnidarians on the beach that morning;


After taking a little snooze on the beach, we took a short walk on a path behind the dunes, watching an immature Great Blue Heron and an egret try to catch their breakfast;



Small rabbits also abounded along the shore, and we saw many over the course of the day;


Being that it was too early to head over to the docks for our whale watching tour, we stopped by the Nature Conservancy migratory bird refuge. While most of the birds were too far away or simply not present during our visit, I did spot a number of Red-Winged Blackbirds, and this particular fellow was especially robust and colorful;


This bright flower also caught our eye;


By the time was had walked the trail it was time for our cruise, although nothing much happened for the first hour or so (outside of being followed by some laughing gulls);

Laughing Gull

The whole trip did not turn out to be a wash, however, as we came across a rather large pod of Bottlenose Dolphins (15-20 individuals) feeding close to shore, right in front of one of John Wyland’s famous “Whaling Walls” (depicting a Humpback Whale, amongst other marine life);



After the overall mediocre cruise and stopping for lunch, we headed to the Cape May Zoo, where I finally got to see some live Pronghorns (previously the only ones I had seen were the stuffed ones at the AMNH);



And, of course, no zoo trip would be complete without seeing a Muntjac;



While I had seen Capybara in zoos before, I at long last got to see one swimming, as well;



As would be expected, the American Alligators were also cooling off in the water, albeit in a more stagnant pool;


The weather was rather hot, so the big cats (lion, cheetah, tiger) mostly stayed out of the sun (and therefore impossible to photograph). I did manage to get a few shots of the leopard and ocelot, however;



The animals in the African plains enclosures were a bit more active, however, including the Reticulated Giraffes and Grey’s Zebra (previously I had only seen Grevy’s Zebras);



While not as exotic, the raccoons and swift fox the zoo kept provided me with some decent shots as well;


Swift Fox

Before leaving, we also stopped into the “World of Birds,” where I encountered this strange species with yellow waddles (and showed no fear or concern that I was photographing it from so close a range);



Not long afterwards, we ate our dinner and headed for home, overall being a good day in Cape May. I also wanted to include this picture of a deer I got a few weeks ago in Pennington, NJ, where I was petsitting;


Done with Cetacean Woo

11 05 2007

Last night I finished Freeing Keiko and I am quite glad to be done with it. It was an interesting book, introducing me to a lot of the personalities involved in Keiko’s release into the wild (as well as all the in-fighting that occurred over the whale), but I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it. Perhaps it was because the author, Kenneth Brower, focused primarily on the people and offered up their quotes about events; it was a bit difficult to get a mental image of what was going on at times. Perhaps this is to be expected as Brower wasn’t around for many significant events and had to get the information from those that were, and oddly enough the whale itself seems to take a backseat to the people; Keiko is represented more as a focal point which everyone revolves around rather than an actual animal.

Outside of Brower’s failure to effectively confront cetacean-woo (at one point he even contemplates whether whales can “hear” colors via echolocation with a vet), I didn’t particularly like the last chapter. While Brower has been generally unkind to aquarium industry folks (and I don’t necessarily blame him for that), he outright attacks anyone who questioned Keiko’s release into the wild after the whale died in Norway several years ago. This is odd because Brower himself seems to question all this time, money, and effort going into the release of one whale for a few moments in the book, yet anyone who came out against the release is branded as a crank or in-bed with the aquarium industry.

As one representative of the Humane Society in the book admits, I would have hoped that the Oregon facility in which Keiko was kept (as well as the facility in Iceland) would be still used to rehabilitate captive orcas for reintroduction into the wild. The release of Keiko could have made precedent and pressure could have been put on those who keep the whales to actively participate in a rehab program. This was not to be, however; Keiko’s Oregon tank got turned into a new exhibit that put the aquarium into debt and I have no idea what’s become of the Iceland facility. There are plenty of people who still remember Keiko, but I wonder what lasting impact the project has had; Keiko was released but wasn’t really ever free, always under the care of trainers and vets until death with the exception of when he swam from Iceland to Norway. I really don’t know if I would call that a success, and even if the intentions of those caring for Keiko were good they did little to break the bond between whale & trainer or discourage the whale from going near boats.

The argument is made towards the end of the book that most of the projects money came from a telecommunications billionaire who would have lost the money anyway, so it’s better that it went to the whale. This might be true, but what about all the money from Keiko t-shirts, donations from kids breaking their piggybanks, etc.? A lot of people devoted a lot of time, money, and effort to the release of this whale, and it is not likely to happen again. If Keiko wasn’t featured in a film in which his fictitious persona was released, the project would never have happened, and at this point the aquarium industry is dead set against giving up any of their whales. Even if they did, there would be no guarantee that the whales would be effectively rehabilitated, and in a way I would merely wish that the breeding programs would end and those whales living in captivity would be left to live their lives; it would be great to see them free, but I don’t think that’s a realistic goal.

Hindsight is 20/20 however, and the Free Willy Foundation couldn’t have known the ultimate outcomes of their project until all was said and done. An admirable effort was made in an attempt to rehabilitate a once-captive whale (in which the succeeded), but the release seemed to give them more problems then they bargained for. Still, while Keiko is not forgotten his story has already begun to fade away, and I doubt Sea World, Miami Seaquarium, or any other park will give up their cetaceans until there is a significant change in the public about keeping cetaceans in captivity. Even the official Keiko website has been without updates since the winter of 2006, and most people merely remember the basic outline of the story. Hell, I picked up Brower’s book in the first place because I didn’t really remember anything outside of an attempt being made to free the whale and a hazy recollection that he had died, and it seems that Keiko’s impact was not so wide or large as was originally hoped.

I don’t think cetaceans belong in aquariums or should be engaged in breeding programs merely because it’s all about the money; the whales are not in danger in the wild and suffer psychologically from being in captivity, yet they’re what everyone goes to see at aquariums. I remember seeing them as a child at Sea World and returned to the Orlando park this past summer, only to be disgusted by what I saw. They were reduced to little more than sea-going clowns, on-stage for our amusement, and the show itself had almost a pagan flavor to it; believe in Shamu (actually Tilikum), chant the name “Shamu”, channel the power of the killer whale, etc. They didn’t actually say that last bit, but it was there was the heavy suggestion of some transcendent communion between man & animal; maybe the trainers need to keep convincing themselves of that so they can go to work every day.

In any case, in the end I’m not sure whether to think those in charge of Keiko did the right or wrong thing; it’s wonderful the whale was rehabilitated but it seemed that there were too many interests (and too many cooks) involved in the release of the whale and too much attention put on him. It’s hard to push an animal to be independent of humans when they’ve been reliant on them their entire lives and continue to have daily training sessions and contact with people. I don’t think a similar project will be undertaken anytime soon, and maybe it shouldn’t; maybe we should focus on trying to increase the care of the whales in captivity and put an end to breeding programs that keep aquariums populated with psychologically-stunted stars.

Cetacean Woo

8 05 2007

Every night for the past few days I’ve been reading bits of Kenneth Brower’s Freeing Keiko: The Journey of a Killer Whale from Free Willy to the Wild and I feel relatively ambivalent towards it; the story itself is interesting but Brower seems to be reaching to find a mythology to relate to Keiko, be it found in Moby Dick, the Bible, or Norse mythology. I can accept such attempts to make the unprecedented return of a killer whale to the wild seem mythic, but Chapter 16 (entitled “The Galactic Federation”) made me want to drop the book and not finish it.

Chapter 16 begins as follows;

In the early 1990s, when Keiko was still in Mexico, a woman named Dianne Robbins began going down to the shore at Deerfield Beach, Florida, where she would sit alone by the ocean with pen and notebook. Robbins is a telepath and empath [emphasis mine]. In the late 1970s, she had been an active member of Greenpeace, but she had not understood back then, very early in her spiritual evolution, that she could hear whales; that she had been telepathically linked to cetaceans in previous lifetimes. Once this reality dawned on her, communication with whales became easy. On the Florida beach she would telepathically call out, “I am ready.” The voices of the sea would then press in upon her as the cetaceans dictated their messages.
“I am Corky, your sister imrisoned in Sea World. Know that my days are fraught with sorrow.”

The chapter continues on with the wild claims, never once qualifying them as Robbins’ beliefs but instead merely presenting them as if everyone believes in telepaths and empaths and all other kinds of neo-spiritual woo. My personal favorite “missive” from the whales Robbins alleged she communicated with is related in this passage;

“I am your Orca Friend dictating this letter to you,” Keiko telepathized. “Know that although I am well taken care of, I still am not free. How long must it be, before I am free? The only sure way to rehabilitate me, is to set me free. The ocean is my home, where my family still awaits me. The ocean contains all the healing ingredients necessary for my complete reintroduction back into Orca life. I have not forgotten how to eat live fish, or how to fish, just because I’ve been penned up all these years. On the contrary, would you forget how to eat your food or shop for food if you were imprisoned?”

Keep in mind that this is all before the assertions that cetaceans are the data-collectors of the universe, the closest beings to being made of pure light, that they repair damage to the earth’s magnetic field, and they can spiritually be beamed aboard Galactic Command ships. Brower makes no comment on such claims, only relating (at the end of the chapter) that Robbins has a different view of the whale than others. I tire of the new-age psychobabble that is so entwined with cetaceans today, just as I am infuriated by those who refuse to acknowledge their intelligence. All too often cetaceans are related to just being animals responding to their environment or some sort of mystical creature that feels kinship with mankind, both extremes being wrong. If Brower wanted to reproduce some of Robbins’ ramblings, so be it, but I can’t abide the blind relativism that allows crackpot claims to seem respectable and proliferate.

Marine mammals take another hit

20 04 2007

When marine fish stocks decline, pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) often take the blame. Seal hunters in Canada after (wrongly) accuse seals of eating all the cod and in the Pacific northwest of the United States it appears that sea lions are being blamed for depleting salmon stocks. I first heard about this issue in a book I randomly picked up in the Baltimore, MD Barnes & Noble a few years ago, and what scientists found was that the sea lions were not eating any significant amount of salmon, at least until a “fish ladder” was created to help the fish get upstream and they became easy prey.

Years later, the debate is still raging and now a sea lion in the Columbia river has been shot twice for stealing a fish off someone’s line (it appears from the article that the fisherman didn’t do the shooting, but it was another person in the area). It seems like the sea lion is alive for the moment, but this could very soon change as the bullets could cause deadly infection. What has yet to be proven, just like the passage in the book (I wish I could remember it’s name), is that the sea lions are actually a major factor in the declining salmon fishery, and I suspect that they are once again being used as a scapegoat for poor management and biological degradation. In all this talk not once have I seen the findings of an outside scientist (i.e. not affiliated with the government or National Marine Fisheries Service) as to what these animals are eating, and if it’s salmon, how much of their diet is composed of salmon. How can we make management choices, especially ones advocating lethal force on a species previously protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, without any serious study of what’s happening?

Others have noticed this issue as well.

“It won’t save declining salmon runs in the Columbia River, because the sea lions aren’t the problem.” said Sharon Young, national marine issues field director for [the Humane Society of the United States]. “It seems that it is easier to scapegoat the sea lions than to try to address these other more politically charged and complex issues.”

Recently, Japanese whalers have blamed Humpback Whales for declining fish stocks, but of course we already know their motives behind this statement; Humpbacks are next on the list to be hunted, which will likely cause greater outcry being they are one of the most powerful symbols of the ocean. Luckily, however, the case for further whaling is looking worse and worse and I hope it is entirely shut down soon.

In any event, I don’t believe marine mammals are having big impacts on fisheries like some claim, and in fact they actually help fisheries by eating competing fish and other predatory fish (especially in the case of seals and sea lions) so eliminating them would be a HUGE mistake. While I hope the issues in Oregon are resolved soon, somehow I get the feeling that as long as we have declining fish stocks, marine mammals are going to get the blame instead of mismanagement by humans.

Precious ambergris…

10 04 2007

Sarda has an very interesting story about an Australian couple finding 32 pounds of ambergris (you’ll have to go to Fish Feet to get the skinny on what it is). And I thought it was bad when my cats threw up, yeesh.

Sperm Whale capsizes boat of would-be rescuers; one drowns

14 03 2007

I’ve said plenty about people slaughtering whales, wolves, and rattlesnakes over the past few days, but here’s video of a Sperm Whale that capsized the boat of some of its attempted rescuers, killing one of them;

This should remind us that just because a particular government engages in an unethical practice (i.e. whaling), it does not mean that all the individuals do not care about the animals or share the same view. When I first heard the story I thought “They’re trying to get another whale? Sheesh,” but in truth the whale had strayed into a bay and (according to this news report) the fishermen were trying to drive back towards deeper water.

Whales sing in dialects

8 03 2007

Not surprising, but exciting that it’s being confirmed; whales sing in different “dialects.” It’s of little wonder that different populations have different types of calls, and that calls vary between individuals within the dialect, but I’m very excited that this is being empirically confirmed and studied. It’s well known that birds have different dialects depending on where they are from, so why should it be any different for whales? I find it encouraging no longer are animals just lower beings on the scala naturae, but are afforded emotions and intelligence once thought to be the sole property of Homo sapiens.