Hidden worlds: whale falls

I like to read science fiction. I particularly enjoy a good alien world, like Neal Asher’s world of hyper-aggressive invertebrates or Lois Bujold’s planet of radially symmetric beasts. Still better than these, however, are the alien worlds right here on Earth, hidden in plain sight. (Well… if “on the same planet” counts as “in plain sight.”) The hidden world I’d like to talk about today is that of whale falls.

A “whale fall” is just a nice way of saying a dead whale: when a whale dies in the ocean, it sinks—falls—to the bottom, and you have a whale fall. Whale falls are different from other dead animals in two big ways. First, they are, well, big. No other living animal gets as big as our biggest whales. When one of those dies, that’s a lot of dead whale.

Also, whale falls are pretty cool in their pre-fall form.

Also, whale falls are pretty cool in their pre-fall form.

Second, when they fall to the ocean floor, they change the environment on the ocean floor dramatically. A dead animal in a forest or jungle or lake is a piece of dead meat in a habitat already full of other kinds of food: leaves, berries, insects, fish, etc. Some animals in these habitats will scavenge on the dead meat, but many other animals will ignore it. The deep ocean floor is not like a jungle. It is barren, with no sunlight to support plants or plankton, which are generally the food sources that the rest of a food chain depends on. The only organic food sources near the deep sea floor are the dead things that fall down from the water column above, picturesquely named “marine snow;” and that water column is filled with creatures trying to eat anything they can find, so not a lot makes it all the way to the bottom. When a dead whale lands on the ocean floor, it is the equivalent of an enormous banquet being dropped into the middle of a desert.

When a whale falls, it gives rise to an entire ecosystem by itself.

Continue reading

Advice from whales and elephants: listen to Grandma

Grandmothers are an evolutionary mystery.

Well, not grandmothers exactly: rather, women who have passed menopause. Human men can sire children as long as they live, but human women can’t have children after they go through menopause. But why do we have menopause at all—why stop having babies? Isn’t it always better, evolutionarily, to have more babies?

I don't know, this might be too many babies...

I don’t know, this might be too many babies…

The mystery is far from solved, but we have some good clues.

Continue reading

Conferences everywhere

This is the first summer in several years that I’ve decided to prioritize something other than field work. This year, I’m focusing on going to conferences and writing up my work—as well as some field work, fear not: there will be photos of baby juncos this year.

Here's a Mew Gull chick to tide you over in the meantime.

Here’s a Mew Gull chick to tide you over in the meantime.

Conferences are a strange combination of things. They are a chance to meet new people and spark collaborations: hey, you do that thing and I do this thing, we should do things together! But they are also a chance to size up the competition, to try to gauge where your work falls on the spectrum of research quality. Scientists naturally see each other as resources and potential collaborators, but occasionally we have to remember that we are all competing for the same limited pot of research funding, of post-doctoral positions, of jobs.

Sometimes fish, too.

Sometimes fish, too.

Given that reality, I’m always proud of how little we behave like competitors: we edit each other’s grant applications and give suggestions on each other’s job talks, even while we know that we too need grants and jobs.

Continue reading