Ancient texts shed new light on the mysterious behavior of whales that ‘captured the imagination’ | whales

New research finds that a mysterious whale feeding behavior that scientists only documented in 2010 was described in ancient texts about marine creatures 2,000 years ago.

In 2011, Bryde’s whales were observed in the Gulf of Thailand for the first time at the surface of the water with their jaws open at right angles, waiting for fish to swim into their mouths. Scientists called the unusual technique, unknown at that time to modern science, “Water feed treadAround the same time, similar behavior was observed in humpback whales off Canada’s Vancouver Island, which the researchers called “Trap feeding“.

In both behaviors, the whale positions itself vertically in the water, with only the tip of its nose and jaw protruding from the surface. Scientists believe that the key to the success of this technique is that the fish instinctively turn towards the apparent shelter of the whale’s mouths.

Flinders University scholars now believe they have identified multiple descriptions of behavior in ancient texts, the first of which appeared in physiological The World of Nature – a Greek manuscript collected in Alexandria around 150-200 AD.

Dr. John McCarthy, a marine archaeologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia, and lead author of the study, made the discovery while reading Norse mythology, about a year after he watched a video of a whale feeding in the water.

He noted that accounts of a sea creature known as B Hafgufa It appears to describe feeding behaviour. “It was really serendipitous,” McCarthy said.

Depictions of sea creatures in medieval manuscripts: circa (a) 1250; (b) 1200; (c) 1225-1275; (d) 1200; (e) 1240; (f) 1270; (g) thirteenth century. Image: public domain

The most detailed description appears in the mid-13th-century Old Norse text known as Konungs skuggsja King’s Mirror. It reads: ‘When she goes to feed…a great fish keeps her mouth open for a time, no more or less wide than a great sound or fjord, and unaware and unconcerned, the fishes rush about in their numbers. And when her belly and mouth are full, [the hafgufa] He closes his mouth, thereby capturing and hiding inside it all the prey that came in search of food.

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McCarthy said the King’s Mirror was an educational text used to explain the world to young people. “They’re exaggerating… [but] It’s not a fancy description of any kind of supernatural element.” He added that the distinction between fish and marine mammals was probably not well understood at the time.

a 1986 analysis From the King’s Mirror found correlations between 26 Old Norse descriptions of scientifically recognized marine animals, but concluded that the hafgofa “must be relegated to the realm of miracles”.

“The Hafgoufah was frustrating for these scientists because they couldn’t figure out which animal it corresponded to,” McCarthy said. “now [with the recently documented feeding behaviour] We think we have an explanation for that.”

In the Book of Nature—a 2,000-year-old text that “preserves zoological information brought to Egypt from India and the Middle East by early natural historians such as Herodotus, Stysias, Aristotle, and Plutarch”—the ancient Greeks referred to the creature as speedoclone.

A surviving version of the text reads: “When he is hungry, he opens his mouth and exhales a certain kind of good-smelling from his mouth, and his scent, as soon as the little fish perceives it, gathers in its mouth. But when his mouth is full of various small fishes, he suddenly closes his mouth and swallows them.”

Bryde's whale feeding in the Gulf of Thailand
Bryde’s whale feeding in the Gulf of Thailand. Photo: Surachai Basada/Department of Marine and Coastal Resources

The researchers noted: “Conclusive evidence for the myths’ origins is very scarce and often impossible, but the similarities here are more impressive and enduring than any previous suggestions.

“The lack of scientific observations prior to the last two decades may be explained by the relative rarity of this feeding strategy, or alternatively by the lack of use of the strategy.”

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“It’s interesting that this type of feeding has been documented thousands of years ago, but has been described as a new technique in recent years,” said Dr. Olaf Meinecke, a research fellow at the Center for Coastal and Marine Research at Griffith University, who was not involved in the research.

“It shows that such interesting feeding behavior has clearly captured the imagination of humans in the past.

“It is very likely that trap feeding is only done in the presence of other predators,” said Meeneke, adding that it has been observed in individual whales and was not a social feeding activity.

“as it is [has a] Low energy cost to the whale, this feeding activity makes more sense when there are smaller schooling fish left after a feeding bout.”

Bryde’s whales and humpbacks are both rorquals, a type of baleen whale.

The study has been published in the journal Marine Mammal Sciences.

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