Tag Archives: marine biology

Marine animals save energy by coasting like birds

It feels good to be an animal. Unlike trees that are tethered to the ground, we animals have the incredible ability to travel. And we do so in a variety of ways. Some like to walk, others run. Others get around by swimming or flying. There are climbers, leapers, and hoppers, and others that prefer to roll and tumble.

Locomotion certainly affords us a great deal of freedom, but it comes at a considerable energy cost. Through countless generations of incremental evolution, our bodies have arrived at many solutions to balancing our energy budget. Fish have streamlined profiles, birds have hollow bones to stay light, and kangaroos have spring loaded hind legs that seamlessly capture and release the energy needed for flight. In the African savannah, predators chase down their prey using long, muscular legs that give them an efficient stride.

In addition to changes in form, animals can also use strategies to travel more efficiently. Birds that need to fly a long distance often make use of a curious technique. They flap their wings to gain height, and once they builds up enough height, the wings stop moving and they glide back downwards. Many birds repeat this wave-like motion in flight, instead of flying at a fixed altitude.

It’s like the difference between cycling on flat terrain or on an undulating, hilly road. In one case you pedal at a steady pace, in the other you alternately pedal hard and don’t pedal at all. The reason that birds adopt this undulating flight strategy is that it saves them energy.

But what’s special about air? What about animals that live in water? In the ocean, swimming is the equivalent of flying. So do marine animals adopt similar swimming strategies to conserve energy? To answer this question, an international group of researchers led by Adrian Gleiss attached sensors onto sharks and seals. They monitored the swimming motion of the whale shark, the white shark, the northern fur seal, and the southern elephant seal.

Here is an animation that they made directly from their recordings, that shows a whale shark swimming.

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Hollaback to the male humpback whale

There’s something irresistible about pop music. Every few months, a song is born that transcends cultural differences and plants itself into our minds. Many of us manage to resist the allure of pop through indifference or stubborn determination. Among the humpback whales, however, keeping up with the latest musical fads is a matter of survival.

Humpback whales use their immense bodies as resonating cavities to produce a truly impressive vocal range. A single male has a range wider than any human choir. They can sing from two octaves lower than a bass singer, to three octaves higher than a soprano. This whale choir broadcasts across the ocean, their songs travelling along for thousands of kilometers. Only the males sing, and they do so only during breeding seasons, suggesting that it plays an important role in attracting a mate.

And just like the songs that we listen to, the songs of the humpback have a precise musical structure. They can be broken into separate themes, each of which contain a number of phrases. Each phrase in turn contains a series of notes, ranging from chirps, bleeps and squeaks that sounds like something from a science fiction movie, to more gravelly grunts and a kind of deep, majestic roar. (Audio samples below)
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