— Thomas Welcome Roys, 1858
Ours is a story about wolves, elephants and whales. It is a story about how our kind relates to other creatures — about the choices we make in obtaining our food and making shelter. Humans are not unique in having the ability to devise strategies to obtain food and habitat, but we have capabilities that are well outside the normal range for other animals, carrying impacts we are only beginning to understand.
For thousands of years, humans have remained largely oblivious to how our lifestyle choices have been affecting other creatures and ignorant of the broader ramifications. Science has only recently extended enough to encompass a few of those connections, but such knowledge is still embryonic.
Humans have only been in our present form for less than half a million years. The average lifespan for a species is many millions of years. Wolves, elephants, and whales sit astride trophic cascades — ecosystems billions of years in the making and elegant across myriad domains and dimensions. In recent posts I explored some of those aspects through the eyes of wolves and elephants. This week we’ll try to get into the heads of whales.
Humans began hunting whales for food at a time when almost all wild animals were viewed as either meat or a threat to our safety. In the dance of predators and prey, wild animals were our adversaries, whether big or small. Once a clan of humans was able make tools to hunt and kill something as large as a mastodon or a whale, we were the top predator. It was not that we had stopped fearing wild animals, rather that we knew we were capable of making them fear us.
We need to appreciate that all fear-based strategies tend towards accomplishing exactly the opposite of their purpose. They set consequences in motion that reduce the very security we expected.
In January 2019, a 38-foot-long male baleen whale, about the length of four parked cars, washed up dead in Florida’s Everglades National Park. Baleen whales like humpbacks and right whales are rare in the Gulf of Mexico. When the whale was dissected, a sharp piece of stiff plastic, not much bigger than a credit card, was removed from its second stomach chamber. By tearing the stomach, the plastic had killed the whale, which is not unusual, unfortunately, but there were bigger surprises awaiting the biologists performing the examination.
After making skull measurements and studying the whale’s DNA, they realized they had found an entirely new species. By January, 2021, marine scientists had genetically sampled and identified up to 36 more individuals of the same genotype in the Caribbean and Northern Gulf of Mexico.
It is difficult to pinpoint the precise moment in history when humans started hunting whales, but we know that by the 16th century industrialization of whaling was already reducing ocean populations. Right whales are relatively slow swimmers with a maximum speed of about 7 knots. They could be hunted by men in rowing boats and killed by harpoon, spear, or lance, or netted, as they were in Japan. Right whales also float when dead, rather than sink. The huge head, extending a third the length of the body, some 16–17 meters, contains valuable oil and 4-meter long baleen plates that were the commercial polymer fibers of their day. Valuable fat was also extracted by melting blubber in open pans. Whale meat was sold in fish markets.
The population of slow-moving right whales was so decimated by the second half of the nineteenth century that it nearly ended whaling. The American fleet retired and the Norwegians took their place. Norwegian technology went faster, deeper, larger.
Imagine the surprise of blues, fins, sperms and humpbacks in polar waters above the Bering Strait when the first Norwegian coal-powered steam whaler appeared, firing rocket grenades from its bow. An eyewitness to that 1856 encounter reported:
“We shot twenty-two Leviathans [blues] killing one, twenty-six Humpbacks killing four, and four Finbacks killing none. Nine Leviathans were made to spout blood, twelve Humpbacks and two Finbacks, which is proof that our aim was tolerably good and the shells all exploded.”
A 100-foot blue whale is equal in weight to 25 elephants or 150 oxen and might have held 52 tons of oil to illuminate the 19th century urban nightscape of Oslo for months. While blues can make speeds of 30 knots and like their relatives the fin, sei, and humpback, will sink if killed, none could match speeds of coal and diesel whalers, or dodge cannon- or rocket-fired and grenade-tipped harpoons towing steel cables (collectively called the “Svend Foyn” method, for the Norwegian inventor). Whale oil became so plentiful that the bottom dropped out of the market by 1905, to about $1 per ton in current dollars.
While commercial whaling is now illegal, discarded credit cards are not the only hazard to whales in the Anthropocene. Plastic of all types is an exponentially growing threat whales and other marine creatures are evolutionarily ill-prepared for. They are similarly unprepared for deafening blasts of military-grade long-range sonar, geology-probing seismic detonations, and ultra-low frequency submarine communications. They are defenseless against estuarine outflows of pesticides and pharmaceuticals that alter appetite, fertility and mental clarity. These are things that kill in ways their natural evolutionary process could never have anticipated.
The discovery of a new species in 2020 revealed that even animals as large as four parked cars may have thus far escaped our notice. How many go extinct every year? We can only guess, based on limited knowledge and tentative, untested algorithms. Recorded vertebrate extinctions since the 16th century — the mere tip of the true extinction iceberg — give a rate of extinction of 1.3 species per year, more than 15 times the pre-industrial background rate. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that some 20% of all species are in danger of near-term extinction.
This year, another 140 million people will be born, or about 384,000 per day — the size of an average city. So, where do we put another city today? And another tomorrow? Usually, it is either on farmland or in former forest. Of course, it seldom happens like that, although there are examples of whole cities being erected quickly for particular needs, such as Washington DC or Brasilia. 35,000 years ago, three million hunter-gatherers “needed” community, shelter, health care, clean water, clean air, and about 3,000 calories a day of nutritious food. Today, people still need those same things.
Since the start of agriculture around 11,000 years ago, the biomass of terrestrial vegetation has been halved (Erb et al., 2018), with a corresponding loss of >20% of its original biodiversity (Díaz et al., 2019), together denoting that >70% of the Earth’s land surface has been altered by Homo sapiens (IPBES, 2019). There have been >700 documented vertebrate (Díaz et al., 2019) and ~600 plant (Humphreys et al., 2019) species extinctions over the past 500 years, with many more species clearly having gone extinct unrecorded (Tedesco et al., 2014). Population sizes of vertebrate species that have been monitored across years have declined by an average of 68% over the last five decades (WWF, 2020), with certain population clusters in extreme decline (Leung et al., 2020), thus presaging the imminent extinction of their species (Ceballos et al., 2020). Overall, perhaps 1 million species are threatened with extinction in the near future out of an estimated 7–10 million eukaryotic species on the planet (Mora et al., 2011), with around 40% of plants alone considered endangered (Antonelli et al., 2020). Today, the global biomass of wild mammals is <25% of that estimated for the Late Pleistocene (Bar-On et al., 2018), while insects are also disappearing rapidly in many regions (Wagner, 2020; reviews in van Klink et al., 2020).
Freshwater and marine environments have also been severely damaged. Today there is <15% of the original wetland area globally than was present 300 years ago (Davidson, 2014), and >75% of rivers >1,000 km long no longer flow freely along their entire course (Grill et al., 2019). More than two-thirds of the oceans have been compromised to some extent by human activities (Halpern et al., 2015), live coral cover on reefs has halved in <200 years (Frieler et al., 2013), seagrass extent has been decreasing by 10% per decade over the last century (Waycott et al., 2009; Díaz et al., 2019), kelp forests have declined by ~40% (Krumhansl et al., 2016), and the biomass of large predatory fishes is now >3% of what it was last century (Christensen et al., 2014).
— Bradshaw and Erhlich, Ghastly Future
In a 2021 paper for Frontiers for Conservation Science, population prophets Paul and Anne Ehrlich joined with other scientists in describing our predicament. By their estimate, of the estimated 170 million tons of living biomass of terrestrial vertebrates on Earth today, most is represented by livestock (59%) and human beings (36%). Less than 5 percent of this total biomass is left to wild mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
A mass extinction is defined as a loss of ~75% of all species on the planet over a geologically short interval — generally anything [under one] million years (Jablonski et al., 1994; Barnosky et al., 2011). At least five major extinction events have occurred since the Cambrian (Sodhi et al., 2009), the most recent of them 66 million years ago at the close of the Cretaceous period. The background rate of extinction since then has been 0.1 extinctions per million species per year (Ceballos et al., 2015), while estimates of today’s extinction rate are orders of magnitude greater (Lamkin and Miller, 2016).
The Ehrlichs and their co-authors observed that for most of history, human ingenuity has inflated the natural environment’s carrying capacity for us by developing new ways to increase food production, expand wildlife exploitation, and enhance the availability of other resources.
We’ve seen this in the case of wolves, elephants and whales. With the availability of fossil fuels, sonar fish finders, and satellites, we have gone well beyond long-term carrying capacity (the planet’s biocapacity), at the expense of all the “lesser” species.
Paul Ehrlich says we make a mistake by sugar-coating this or suggesting there is some easy way out if we just adopt renewable energy or change our diets. He says, “a good communication strategy must ideally undercut [optimism] bias … and ‘tell it like it is.’ “
“Anything else is misleading at best, or negligent and potentially lethal for the human enterprise at worst.”
Evolution is about tradeoffs. Thus it has ever been and shall ever be. Whenever a species gained a skill it gave up another. It got worse in some area in order to get better in another. When one species moves into a new ecosystem, other species are wedged out. Species-ization is specialization and vice-versa.
Oceanographer Sylvia Earle asked us to imagine losing all the airline pilots.
“Or all the heart doctors. That is what extinction is. We are the only species on earth that caused another to go extinct. Our species is reverent about knowledge. We developed Generational knowledge. We could not have extinguished the saber tooth cat without spears and flint points which were generational knowledge. That broke the tradeoff requirement (to a degree) because we developed collective skill specialization.
“The former vision of “limitless fish in an infinitely productive ocean” has been shattered in one generation. “Greatly expanding demand to feed growing populations of people coupled with the means to find, capture, and transport animals from all parts of the sea to distant lands have drastically altered the nature of ocean ecosystems in a few decades. Even familiar staples of the early part of this century — cod, herring, haddock, pollock, halibut, several kinds of salmon, and tuna — are in sharp decline after years of heavy fishing pressure”
The ancestors of modern cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) transitioned from land mammals to marine during the Eocene about 50 million years ago. To reduce drag, their bodies streamlined and shed body hair. To survive cold, they grew thicker skin that lacked sweat glands and had a subcutaneous layer of blubber. Fins and flukes replaced forelimbs and hind-limbs. To go deep they evolved collapsible lungs and a flexible ribcage. They increased oxygen stores in blood, muscle, and brain and learned to perform rapid turnover of gases at the surface with blowholes. They lost the ability to synthesize melatonin from sunlight, but relied on diet to provide that. Gone were saliva, olfactory receptors and hair-and-claw keratin. They lost a kind of blood clotting that could cause damage on deep dives but kept the kind that heals wounds. They evolved a type of sleep that let one brain hemisphere sleep while the other kept up movement for breathing and heat generation.
For communication, they moved from vocal calls that might be heard across a forest to low-frequency sounds that can travel underwater for hundreds of miles, and pod-distinctive songs that identify them to their kin. To the human ear they sound like clicks, whistles, grunts, groans, thwops, snorts and barks. The sperm whale can broadcast its tak-tak-taks at 235 decibels, enough to kill a human at close range. Human speech, by comparison, can only attain 60 to 65 dB. A rock concert is 115 dB.
Whales and dolphins are not big fans of heavy metal though. They like to hear music played on the lute, harp, flute, and similar instruments. In the sixteenth century sailors would serenade whales and dolphins under moonlight. When a pod of 3000 beluga whales became stranded by ice, trapped in shrinking breathing pools in the Arctic Ocean, a Russian icebreaker, the Moskva, came to their rescue, but they would not follow the ship to open water. The belugas were weak and afraid of the 400-foot ship and its propellers. No one knows how to speak beluga, so the rescuers slowly opened larger pools for the animals to breathe, feed, rest, and relax. Helicopters dropped them fish. Yet, they still refused to follow the ship in the canal back to the open ocean. Anaïs Remili, writing for Whale Scientists described what happened then:
One person on the vessel recalled that marine mammals react to music. And so music began to pour off the top deck. The crew played all kinds of music from pop to classical. After multiple experiments, the entrapped belugas started to react to classical music and approached the icebreaker.
Using classical music, Moskva slowly herded the pod back to the open sea. Captain Kovalenko reported by radio to his headquarters: “Our tactic is this: We back up, then advance again into the ice, make a passage, and wait. We repeat this several times. The belugas start to ‘understand’ our intentions and follow the icebreaker. Thus we move kilometer by kilometer”. The operation took weeks, but by the end of February 1985, an estimated 2000 whales reached the ocean.
As they evolved, cetaceans gave up many features, but one organ grew larger — their brains. At 8,000 cc, it is over five times the volume of ours. In some, like porpoises, the two hemispheres and jaw work like radar domes, echolocating distant objects by sonar clicks. A sperm whale detects its prey by sending clicks from the front of its nose and receiving the echo back in a fatty sac beneath its mouth. Operating most of the time in full darkness, it can pinpoint a small squid a mile away.
Human speech is analog. Whale speech, coming from a much larger brain, is digital. Each click contains a series of smaller clicks containing a series of even smaller clicks, and another, even smaller. The time intervals within these clicks are on the order of milliseconds, yet sperm whales can replicate them exactly. They can also make precise revisions, reorganizing the pattern of the clicks within a click and then sending it back to a neighbor, all within a fraction of a second. Human voices vary constantly in volume and frequency. The same word spoken twice will never be exactly the same. Milliseconds are well outside our range of resolution.
Cetacean frontal lobes contain neurons called spindle cells, also found in humans, dogs, and a small handful of other species. They are thought to allow for rapid communication between distant brain regions, to process emotions, interact socially and feel love and empathy for others.
In 2007, on a sailing trip to the island of Mauritius, something happened to Fabrice Schnöller that would change the course of his life. BBC reporter David Cox told the story in 2016:
As his boat approached the coast, giant towers of steam began exploding out of the water. One by one the columns closed in, until they surrounded the whole boat. Curious as to the source of this strange ocean phenomenon, Schnöller grabbed his snorkling equipment and a camera, and jumped in.
Glancing downwards, Schnöller froze. Out of the darkness, a series of giant dark monolithic shapes were heading directly towards him. It was a pod of sperm whales accelerating towards the surface.
The whales surrounded him, staring with large, unblinking eyes. At more than 60 feet in length and weighing approximately 125,000 pounds, they dwarfed him. But rather than swallowing the helpless Schnöller in one giant gulp, the whales appeared to be deeply intrigued.
After scanning him, the rhythm structure of their sounds began to change. Schnöller later realized that these were the patterns that we believe sperm whales use to communicate and send information. The whales appeared to be speaking to him.
They stayed for two hours, circling, staring and showering him with bursts of sound, before vanishing once more into the deep. Schnöller was entranced.
In 2009, Schnöller began a new project called DareWin to decode sperm whale speech.
“In France we say that you see the soul of a person through their eyes,” he says. “With sperm whales you really feel a connection, which is totally different to other animals.
In one incident in 2011, a calf began jostling Schnöller with its nose. He held up his hand to gently move the whale away, and felt a sudden hot pain through his arm. Such was the power of the clicks coming from the calf that his hand was paralyzed for several hours.”
But some moments are worth such risks.
“The most incredible experience was when I got in the water and there was a female who had just given birth minutes beforehand.… There was a big pod of more than 30 whales and given that when an animal gives birth, it’s at its most fragile, I was backing away. But instead, they integrated me in the midst of their group and the mother pushed the little new-born sperm whale towards me. It seemed like they could understand what I was about and that I wasn’t a threat.”
“So far the best connection we can establish with them is through play,” Schnöller says. “They don’t come just to stare at you. If you do nothing, then they leave after five minutes. But if you do something playful, then they stay. They love it.”
The whales may even use sound to “touch” each other. “We believe that, as a pod, they caress and touch each other at short distances using acoustics… They emit very strong and heavy sounds, which vibrate inside the others like a deep caress, and that is how they display affection.”
By the end of this century we may have seen the last of these great creatures. Alternatively, they may have taken the path to salvation in a choice made 50 million years ago, and it will be they who survive this century and we who perish. Any other conclusion is, to paraphrase Paul Ehrlich, “misleading at best.”
Bradshaw, Corey J. A. et al, Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future Front. Conserv. Sci., 13 January 2021 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fcosc.2020.615419
Bar-On, Y. M., Phillips, R., and Milo, R. (2018). The biomass distribution on Earth. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 115:6506–6511. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1711842115
Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P. R., Barnosky, A. D., García, A., Pringle, R. M., and Palmer, T. M. (2015). Accelerated modern human-induced species losses: entering the sixth mass extinction. Sci. Adv. 1:e1400253. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1400253
Cohen, Joel E. How Many People Can the Earth Support? New York: W. W. Norton & Company 1995.
Earle, Sylvia A., Sea Change: A Message of the Oceans. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons 1995.
Rosel, Patricia E., Lynsey A. Wilcox, Tadasu K. Yamada, and Keith D. Mullin. “A new species of baleen whale (Balaenoptera) from the Gulf of Mexico, with a review of its geographic distribution.” Marine Mammal Science. 10 January 2021 https://doi.org/10.1111/mms.12776
The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.
As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
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“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”
— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.