Can Whales See the Stars?

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Digital Illustration: Arlene O'Reilly

Digital Illustration: Arlene O’Reilly

Michael J. West
In Moby Dick, Herman Melville wondered how – or what – whales see with eyes on opposite sides of their heads. “It is plain that he can never see an object which is exactly ahead… Is his brain so much more comprehensive, combining and subtle than man’s that he can at the same moment of time attentively examine two distinct prospects, one on one side of him, and the other in an exactly opposite direction?” he asked. It’s a good question. But if Melville were alive today he might have pondered something perhaps even more intriguing: Can whales see the stars?

Two years ago, a team led by Professor Travis Horton of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand published the most detailed study ever of the migration patterns of whales.
Using satellites, they tracked the movements of South Atlantic humpback whales over eight years.
To their surprise, the researchers found that the whales followed almost perfectly straight paths across thousands of miles of open sea, often deviating by less than one degree.
Ocean currents, storms, and varying seafloor depths – nothing seemed to knock the whales off course.
But how can humpbacks follow such straight trajectories with no landmarks to guide their way across the vast featureless seascape?

Scientists have known for decades that migrating animals use a variety of sensory cues to orient themselves, including our planet’s magnetic field and the sun’s position in the sky.
Yet the precision of the whales’ routes seems difficult to explain with those mechanisms alone.
Horton and his research team concluded, “It seems unlikely that individual magnetic and solar orientation cues can, in isolation, explain the extreme navigational precision achieved by humpback whales,” speculating that “alternative mechanisms of migratory orientation” might be at work.
An exciting – but still unproven – possibility is that whales use the stars to chart
their oceanic voyages….

…

Written by physicsgg

September 14, 2013 at 9:02 am


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