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Don't just stand there, fall asleep
August 12, 2012 4:24 PM   Subscribe

Researchers sneak up on sleeping sperm whales (.mpg video, hosted by Current Biology.) Matt Kaplan, writing in Nature, summarizes a 2008 article in Current Biology: "An accidental encounter with a pod of sleeping sperm whales has opened researchers’ eyes to some unknown sleep behaviours of these giant sea creatures . . . A team led by Luke Rendell at the University of St Andrew’s, UK, were monitoring calls and behaviour in sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) off the northern Chile coast when they accidentally drifted into the middle of a pod of whales hanging vertically in the water, their noses poking out of the surface. At least two of the whales were facing the boat, but not a single animal responded."

And there is this extraordinary photo of this phenomenon (not the same encounter, but it's a beautiful photo, by Magnus Lundgren for Wild Wonders of Europe).

"Stereotypical resting behavior of the sperm whale," by Patrick J.O. Miller, , Kagari Aoki, Luke E. Rendell, and Masao Amano. (Current Biology, Vol. 18/1, Jan. 2008.).


Alternate .mov version of video (appears to have no sound) on Nature's site.
posted by spitbull (44 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sorry, here is a direct link to the Lundgren photo. (It is on the bottom of the page linked above, in a gallery.)
posted by spitbull at 4:27 PM on August 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, not to thread-sit, but you might want to turn the sound down in the linked video before it plays, as one of the researchers (?) on the boat has a mild freakout when they first see the whales.
posted by spitbull at 4:32 PM on August 12, 2012


So cool!
posted by christhelongtimelurker at 4:35 PM on August 12, 2012


Sleeping? They're just low motility sperm whales.
posted by hal9k at 4:39 PM on August 12, 2012 [33 favorites]


Amazing. I am not used to seeing things floating in a vertical position. They look peaceful, but odd and otherworldly. Like giant exclamation points.
posted by louche mustachio at 4:39 PM on August 12, 2012 [10 favorites]


Wow! That's very cool. I hadn't realized whales (at least sperm whales) need to actively work to remain horizontal.
posted by rmd1023 at 4:41 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Do sperm whales sleeping erect have wet dreams?
posted by ShutterBun at 4:51 PM on August 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Woah, just had the strangest flashback to Star Trek IV.
posted by longdaysjourney at 5:16 PM on August 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


Wikipedia has a great article on dolphin, porpoise and whale cognitive capabilities that I was just reading before I hit this article. Worth a read.
posted by Admira at 5:17 PM on August 12, 2012


My flashback: "Hey! What's this thing suddenly coming towards me very fast? Very very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding name like ... ow ... ound ... round ... ground! That's it! That's a good name - ground! I wonder if it will be friends with me? "
posted by hal9k at 5:26 PM on August 12, 2012 [10 favorites]


Oh dear, first link has been overloaded. There was a name for this phenomenon of overloading websites that have been FPP'ed, but for the life of me I can't remember it.
posted by Alnedra at 5:27 PM on August 12, 2012


Wow, incredible! Great post.
posted by lazaruslong at 5:28 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wonderful!

Bonny Schumaker has photographed Sperm Whales in the Gulf of Mexico in this position.

I didn't know they were napping!
posted by eustatic at 5:44 PM on August 12, 2012


There was a name for this phenomenon of overloading websites that have been FPP'ed, but for the life of me I can't remember it.

slashdotted.
posted by Justinian at 5:47 PM on August 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


OK, the last link is to a duplicate of the video (without sound) at Nature's site, which may be more robust than Elsevier's site for CB.
posted by spitbull at 5:47 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's neat that they all decide to sleep at the same time.
posted by carter at 6:08 PM on August 12, 2012


Yeah, don't be shy about watching the one without sound. The sound track doesn't add much beyond the idea that it's pretty terrifying to be up in a bosun's chair while drifting over massive, powerful sea creatures.
posted by indubitable at 7:17 PM on August 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


I propose a new plan:
1. Sneak up on sleeping sperm whales
2. Put them on scanners.
3. ?
posted by Mezentian at 7:49 PM on August 12, 2012


Phase 3 is clearly: Put stacks of giant pancakes on their heads.
posted by Kattullus at 7:53 PM on August 12, 2012 [13 favorites]


I assumed that the researcher's "mild freakout" was bosun's chair related too - sleeping whales or no sleeping whales, bosun's are no fun.
posted by R. Mutt at 8:12 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's neat that they all decide to sleep at the same time.

As an evolutionary biologist, I found it very interesting that they were sleeping in groups AND that there were clearly a couple of whales that weren't asleep. There's this dandy little theory called The Dilution Effect, which basically says that individuals benefit from hanging out in groups. Think of it this way, if you're one sperm whale sleeping in the ocean and one of your predators happens to pass you by, you have a 100% chance of being attached (give or take). If you're one sperm whale sleeping in the ocean with 9 other companions when that predator comes along, then you have a 10% chance of being the first one to be attacked. So it makes sense to sleep in a group. HOWEVER, there were clearly 1-3 individuals who were awake in the video, which suggests that perhaps there is something more complex going on here. Awesome stuff!
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 8:23 PM on August 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Heh, yeah, I was wondering if the videographer was freaked out by the whales or the height.
posted by maryr at 8:26 PM on August 12, 2012


I'm pretty sure that sneaking up on sperm whales will get you a restraining order in some jurisdictions.
posted by arcticseal at 8:47 PM on August 12, 2012


Phase 3 is clearly: Put stacks of giant pancakes on their heads.

Then wake them up and make YouTube video of Sperm Whale and Wombat are Friends Who Chase the Lazer. Then take still pictures and caption with gnomic statements of idiosyncratic grammar and spelling. Next stop I Can Haz Ambergris In My Lucid Dreamz media empire.
posted by y2karl at 8:55 PM on August 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Amazing. I am not used to seeing things floating in a vertical position.

Probably vertical because their heads are full of spermaceti.
posted by 445supermag at 9:02 PM on August 12, 2012


Visit from an Infant Sperm Whale
posted by homunculus at 9:48 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sperm whales: the Uranus of the oceans.
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:09 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I thought whales slept in a half-cortex way so they were never fully out? Maybe that's just some dolphins.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:13 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Attention: Do not startle the sleeping whales.
posted by davidpriest.ca at 10:14 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


or was it cortex who sleeps in a half-whale manner?
posted by mwhybark at 10:16 PM on August 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


I thought whales slept in a half-cortex way so they were never fully out? Maybe that's just some dolphins.
I thought that was birds.

(looking it up, it's birds and whales, but not sperm whales, apparently)
posted by delmoi at 10:17 PM on August 12, 2012


HOWEVER, there were clearly 1-3 individuals who were awake in the video, which suggests that perhaps there is something more complex going on here.

Well you can't put the rogue and the mage on the same watch - it's obvious their in cahoots! Have the mage stand watch with the paladin and the rogue with the ranger.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:40 AM on August 13, 2012


Time to make contact.
posted by pracowity at 12:54 AM on August 13, 2012


Well, the polite thing to do is to introduce yourself and ask for their names.
posted by homunculus at 1:43 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I know it's late when I see a pod of sperm whales sleeping and the first thing I think is, "They're so cute when they're asleep."
posted by Splunge at 1:51 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Having one or two awake while the rest sleep is ordinary behavior in herds of horses or other prey animals: helps to have a lookout to warn about possible predators. Perhaps the pod of whales follows a similar habit and the researchers weren't perceived as predators.
posted by mightshould at 4:40 AM on August 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Practically the only predators of concern to Sperm whales are Orcas hunting in pods (even so, mighty rare because Orcas know better) and people in boats.
posted by spitbull at 5:10 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dammit, when are we going to figure out how to speak to them?!

I'm not saying its easy, apart from anything else since they 'see' with sound they could be speaking pictures, but if there is a pattern there we must be able to figure it out.

Then we can ask them about the giant squid...
posted by BadMiker at 5:56 AM on August 13, 2012


Then we can ask them about the giant squid...

Their answer: "What, calamari? Delicious!"
posted by Skeptic at 6:48 AM on August 13, 2012


Are we sure this isn't a pod of fainting sperm whales?
posted by Nomyte at 8:09 AM on August 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


the sperm whales where when you clap your hands at them or show them their favorite treat they just keel over? THE CUTEST WHALES EVAR
posted by mwhybark at 9:00 AM on August 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Very interesting. So little is known about the behavior most marine mammals in their natural habitat.

There was a brilliant Canadian (documentary) TV series called Champions of the Wild, and in each episode they followed a dedicated researcher/biologist studying a different species. Amazing that despite making it their life's work to observe a given species, most of the researchers knew very little about the animals they were studying and were just beginning to scratch the surface.

One memorable episode was about a biologist who studied northern elephant seals on the California coast. Elephant seals only come ashore to give birth and nurse their young for a brief period (two weeks to a month, I think) before heading back out to sea. They also take that opportunity (coming ashore) to mate and conceive the next year's young. Anyhow, the researcher tried to glean a little information about elephant seals' behavior at sea since virtually nothing was known about it, and invented/built a GPS tracking device which he attached to some seals. The data he received surprised him. It showed that the seals spent their entire time at sea making very deep dives in order to feed, and then would spend 5-15 minutes at the surface before diving again for 45-55 minutes. They did this relentlessly, over and over again for their entire time at sea, taking NO TIME to sleep, unless if they were catching a few quick winks as they were oxygenating their lungs for a few brief minutes before diving deep again.
posted by Devils Slide at 10:21 AM on August 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


You can tell they didn't faint because none of them have a fin draped dramatically over their eyes.

Also, no fainting couches.
posted by maryr at 3:16 PM on August 13, 2012


That's nothing. You should see what happens if you sprinkle salt on their tails.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:33 AM on August 16, 2012


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