4 facts about whales you may not know

By now, you should all be familiar with my fascination with the creatures of the deep. While we’ve covered orcas recently, I thought it was about time we talked about some other members of the whale family.

Ranging from underwater unicorns to cunning hunters who use bubbles to trap prey, here are some interesting facts about whales.

Little and large

Whale tail
Credit: Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith

I’m sure we all know that, generally, whales are some of the largest creatures on the planet. How many times have you heard the amazing David Attenborough tell you that the blue whale has a heart the size of a small car? It’s true they reach sizes of up to 112 feet (34 metres) and 190 metric tons, but some whales are a lot smaller.

Pilot whales
Credit: Tony Hisgett

Aside from dolphins and porpoises, the smallest “true” whale is the dwarf sperm whale, which is found in most of the world’s oceans. Peaking at 8.5 feet (2.6 metres) and 298 pounds (135 kilograms), it’s hardly what you picture when you think about a whale. This tiny titan has been spotted off the coast of Virginia, USA, Spain, Brazil and even the UK.

But size isn’t everything, and whales have evolved into an array of different sizes and designs over the years.

Unique designs

Beaked whale
Credit: NOAA Photo Library

Most of us probably picture the blue whale or the humpback whale as the standard shape for most species, and while there are lots of dedicated followers of this fashion, some species work hard to stand out. Interestingly, there’s a whole branch of whales known as beaked whales, the most outlandish of which is the strap-toothed whale found in the southern oceans. Its teeth, which can grow up to a foot long, grow from upward and back from the lower jaw at a 45 degree angle, wrapping around the animal’s lower jaw and almost closing it.

Probably the most famous of the toothed whales is the narwhal, which as well as being really fun to say, is more or less an underwater unicorn. Found under the icy waves of Arctic Greenland, Canada, and Russia, the males of this amazing species grow “tusks”, which are actually modified teeth. These can reach lengths of 4 feet 11 inches to 10 feet 2 inches (1.5 to 3.1 metres).

No word yet on underwater dragons or vampires, though.

Hunting techniques

Narwhals "tusking"
Credit: National Institute of Standards and Technology

With so many different sizes and shapes of whale, and so many tasty animals to eat, whales have developed a staggering array of diets and hunting techniques.

We’re all familiar with the gentle giants, the huge filter feeding species who sieve huge mouthfuls of seawater for tiny shrimp-like animals called krill. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For example, many species have been witnessed diving below shoals of fish and letting out a steady stream of bubbles as they circle the prey. The “net” gradually tightens and forces the prey into a tight ball, allow the whales to scoop up whole mouthfuls in one go. Lovely.

My personal favourite, however, has to be the sperm whale. This huge hunter, which has the largest brain mass of any living creature, dives to staggering depths of over 7,000 feet (2,250 metres) to hunt giant and colossal squid.

I’d give almost anything to watch these two titans of the deep go toe-to-toe. Or flipper-to-tentacle, I guess.

Evolutionary surprises

Hippotamus
Credit: Loadmaster (David R. Tribble)

If you had to guess the closest living relative of whales and dolphins, you might be tempted to go for a manatee or maybe a seal. Right? Nope. Surprisingly, the closest living relative is the hippopotamus.

Going back to around 50 million years ago, the recently discovered pakicetidae, from northern Pakistan and north-western India, is considered by scientists to be among the earliest forms for whales, and it is not what you’d expect. They were hoofed, land-living mammals that lived on flood plains.

After a million years or so (give or take), ambulocetidae, a crocodile-like creature appeared, and lived in bays and estuaries.

The oldest ancestor that most of us would recognise as whale-like is probably the basilosaurus, which sadly does not run a hotel in Torquay. Living between 40 – 34 million years ago, this chap measured up 40 to 65 feet (12 to 20 metres), and roved the world’s oceans. They look a little like a modern whale but stretched a little fin (boom-boom).

Not just for Christmas: 7 facts about reindeer

Everyone knows reindeer are the archetypal Christmas animal, but does anyone really know anything about them? Apart from the fact that they have antlers and pull sleighs, that is. Well, here are some facts about this very festive animal (along with plenty of adorable photos).

A reindeer

1) They don’t have red noses. Bit of an obvious one to start off with. But you might not know that the fictional Rudolph almost didn’t have a red nose either! The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created by an American called Robert Lewis May in 1939. At the time, bright red noses were considered to be a sign of alcoholism, so the story was initially rejected. It was only when May convinced an illustrator friend to draw lots of “cute reindeer” (based on zoo deer as models) that the story was eventually accepted! Wouldn’t our lives have been that much sadder without Rudolph the Gin-Sodden Reindeer?

Another reindeer

2) Reindeer go by many names. No – not Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. In North America, they’re called caribou. The word “caribou” comes from a Native American word “qalipu”, which means “snow shoveler”. Reindeer comes from the Old Norse word “hreinin” which means “horned animal”, and you can see what they were trying to do there… And most eastern European languages get their name for the horned beasts from “pocaw”, which comes from the Iranian for “cattle”.

A reindeer pulling a sledge

3) Female reindeer can have antlers, and they’re the only type of deer where this is the case. Usually, it’s the only males that have them. The female deer keep their antlers right up until they give birth to their babies in the spring. It’s believed this is so they can compete for food during the winter months. They’re eating for two, you know!

Another reindeer

4) They have a moss named after them. It’s called reindeer moss (or reindeer lichen) and it was given that name because they eat it. They eat loads of it. Indeed, reindeer are the only mammals who possess the enzyme lichenase which breaks lichen down to glucose.

Reindeer moss

5) Polar bears eat them. Poor old reindeer have quite a few enemies. Golden eagles and wolverines prey on their calves (their babies; not their lower leg muscles). Brown bears and polar bears feed on reindeer of all ages. A whole reindeer was even found once in the stomach of a Greenland shark! And even in death, there’s no escape – foxes, ravens, hawks, flies and mosquitos all have a lovely time feasting on reindeer. Oh, and as Lizzie recently discovered, the Norwegians love a bit of reindeer on their pizza!

Reindeer

6) Reindeer are strictly northerners, so it’s unlikely they’d ever be friends with a penguin, despite what the little cartoons on Christmas cards want us to believe. Reindeer can be found in Alaska, northern Canada, parts of Greenland and Iceland, and northern Scandinavia and Russia. However, it hasn’t always been this way; they used to live further south. During the Pleistocene era (which is a long time ago, trust me), reindeer used to live as far south as Nevada, Tennessee and Spain!

Reindeer

7) Reindeer have lots of great ways of dealing with the cold, which is lucky seeing as that’s where they spend most of their time. Their noses warm the air they breathe before it reaches their lungs. Their fur traps air, which keeps them warm and has the added bonus of helping them to float in water! Their hooves adapt to the changing seasons remarkably well. In summer, when the ground is moist, their pads tighten giving them extra grip on the slipperiness!

Reindeer

5 smells from around the world

5 smells from around the world

Last year, we wrote about five of the world’s smelliest places. Well, our planet has become no less pungent since then, so here are five more whiffy wonders.

It’s said that, because there’s so much of it around, Eskimos have fifty words for snow. Presumably it’s for a similar reason that English has so many words for bad smells. Pong, stench and stink can all describe an unpleasant odour, whereas we are limited to saying something “smells nice” on the rare occasions when it does.

Stink is in the nose of the beholder so, while most of the following are likely to cause olfactory offense, there may be some people who enjoy them. If you’re a lunatic who finds the smell of cows or rotten eggs strangely appealing, please do let us know.

Cows | Uruguay

Cows

Cows stink; everyone knows that. Some creatures (such as the famously-pongy skunk) create an unpleasant smell on purpose, as a warning or to mark territory, but cows have no such master plan; they’ve just got BO.

Cows

The average cow can produce up to 500 litres of methane per day. Although methane itself doesn’t smell, a cow’s digestive system produces plenty of other stinks that slip out at the same time. They swallow their food, then regurgitate it, then swallow it again as it passes through the four chambers of their stomach. It’s this process, and the bacteria in their gut, that produces such a gross stench.

Cows

Uruguay has more cows per person than any other country – roughly four cows to every normal (human) citizen. This means that every Uruguayan is entitled to sniff over 700,000 litres of cow-produced methane every single year. You may think that sounds like a whole lot of bovine blow-offs, but you’d be wrong – cows expel most of their gut gasses through burping.

Kiviak | Greenland

Kiviak

One of last year’s smelliest places was Seal Island, South Africa, where 60,000 seals gather together, mess around, and generally stink the place up. The inhabitants of Greenland, however, have found a way to make just a single seal smell almost as bad – by stuffing it full of dead birds and burying it for several months.

This may sound like a psychopath’s weird experiment, but in fact it’s how Greenlanders prepare the dish kiviak. Up to 500 auks (imagine a lovely little flying penguin) are stuffed into a hollowed-out seal, which is then sewn up and either buried or just left under a rock (it doesn’t matter which – it’s disgusting either way). This monstrosity is then left to ferment, during which time the birds begin to tenderise and the whole thing really starts to reek. Between three and 18 months later, the rotten seal is opened up (somewhere outside) and the birds are eaten raw.

Kiviak began as a way of preserving food and allowing Greenlanders to survive through the harsh winter. Such measures are no longer necessary, so now they just do it for fun – the rotten birds are considered a delicacy and are often eaten at weddings and birthdays. If anyone is thinking of feeding me one on my birthday though, they better think again – if the first bite is with the eyes, the second bite is with the nose, and that’s as close as anyone should get to this stinking dinner.

Bread | Portugal

Bread

Smell is very subjective. For example, people often cite freshly cut grass as one of their favourite smells, but I don’t like it at all. A psychologist might tell me that this demonstrates some unresolved resentment towards my father’s lawnmower, when the truth is I just think cut grass stinks (and it makes me inexplicably sad). Anyway, if people were able to agree on just one pleasant odour, there’s a good chance that freshly baked bread would be it.

Bread

In 1984, a Canadian baker baked the world’s longest loaf of bread measuring 3.98 metres. Things move quickly in competitive bakery though, and by 2005 the record stood at a massive 1,211.6 metres. This lengthy loaf was baked in Vagos municipality, Portugal, filling the streets with a delicious bready aroma for almost 60 hours. It’s not clear who decided that length would be a good measure of bread, but the pointlessness of the record doesn’t make the achievement any less impressive.

There must not be much to do in Portugal, because 35,000 people turned up to watch the bread baking. Sadly, most of them went home hungry – once finished, the loaf was cut up and distributed to just 15,000 people (which is still three times the number Jesus managed to feed with five loaves).

Stinkbird | Guyana

Stinkbird

The stinkbird (official named hoatzin) is common around much of South America, but it’s the people of Guyana who’ve really taken this sky skunk to their hearts – they’ve chosen the nasally-offensive species as their national bird.

Stinkbird

Uniquely among birds, the hoatzin has a multi-chambered stomach (similar to that of a cow) and this, combined with its leafy diet, gives the poor creature an unpleasant, manure-like odour. This unusual digestive system isn’t the only curious thing about stinkbirds – they’re so strange that they’ve been given their own biological family group and experts disagree on how the bird evolved.

Stinkbird

Adult stinkbirds look like big punk chickens and are not very scary. Baby stinkbirds, however, look like furry little dinosaurs and are absolutely terrifying. When the youngsters hatch, they have pterodactyl-style claws on their wings which they use to climb trees (and to attack people, probably). They can also swim. Please don’t have nightmares.

The fact that, despite all its unique characteristics, the hoatzin is still called “stinkbird” can only mean one thing – it must smell really, really bad. Still, it would be nice if the species wasn’t burdened with such a pejorative name so perhaps it should be changed to “frighteningly under-evolved cow-stomach bird.” If anyone knows how to make an official avian name-change request, please get in touch.

Rotorua | New Zealand

Rotorua

Nicknamed “Rotten-rua” by hilarious locals, Rotorua is famous for its geothermal activity. The city, on New Zealand’s North Island, is surrounded by geysers, hot mud pools and dense sulphur deposits. While the geysers and mud pools are nice things, attracting tourists to the area, the sulphur deposits are less appealing – they cover the city in a thick eggy funk. This smell ranges from faint to overpowering depending on the weather so, taking this into account, Rotorua gets an 8 on my unofficial egg-stink scale (where 1 is the smell of a normal egg and 10 is our office kitchen).

Rotorua

Bizarrely, the city’s website opens with “Welcome to Rotorua – where catching a trout is almost guaranteed.” It seems very strange that, given the area’s natural wonders and Maori history, the tourist board has instead focussed on this half-hearted fishing promise. That said, it would’ve been a challenge to come up with a slogan based on Rotorua’s hydrogen sulphide emissions and I can understand them wanting to avoid the topic. Sadly for both tourists and residents though, the eggy whiff is inseparable from the geothermal features that define the city; sulphur deposits are a common occurrence at sites of volcanic activity around the world, and provide strong evidence that the inside of our planet is just as stinky as the outside.

Unusual homes from around the world

Unusual homes from around the world

It’s always nice to get back to your own home and your own bed when you’ve been away, but imagine if you didn’t have a becarpeted floor, a radiatored room and a reliable roof? Read on to learn how good you’ve got it…

Icelandic turf houses

Turf roof

It’s easy to imagine Tinky Winky or Po emerging from one of these cute little houses, but they are in fact traditional Icelandic homes. Although they could well be housing a number of elves (apparently, the majority of Icelanders believe in the existence of elves… Just one of the many things that makes Iceland a bit special).

Turf houses

These homes have been built for over 1,000 years, though they are now dying out in favour of earthquake-proof little numbers. Homes were built in this way because timber was scarce on the island, as it was almost completely deforested when the settlers arrived. Frames could be made from the native birch tree but it wasn’t ideal for larger structures. However, there was plenty of turf available to fill in the gaps. A stone base was constructed on which the wooden frame sat, then the turf was inserted in blocks and a final grassy layer was put over the top. The turf insulated the home a treat, shielding inhabitants from the -30 degree winds of the winter.

More turf houses

One of the odd things discovered about these homes is that toileting seemed to be a communal activity, with enough seats being provided for all inhabitants to do their ones and twos at the same time… Delightful! Icelanders are definitely people persons!

Tunisian troglodyte homes

Troglodyte house

It’s not known how long these trog homes have existed for but it is thought that they have been around since ancient times. Tribespeople built their homes underground during a war, as invaders had been instructed to kill every human being in their path. In the dead of night, the tribe would creep out of their cave dwellings and attack the invaders – genius!

Another troglodyte house

Believe it or not these homes weren’t discovered until 1967 – no one even knew they existed until then! It was only because heavy rainfall caused them to flood and collapse that the inhabitants were forced to ask for help. It was a bit of a surprise for the authorities but help was sent nonetheless.

Hotel Sidi Driss

Nowadays, it is possible to visit these homes and even stay in a troglodyte hotel, which was used in the Star Wars films as Luke Skywalker’s home. If you do want to stay, you may find a few nutsy fans lurking around, or underground!

Benin stilt houses

Stilt houses

The Republic of Benin is situated in west Africa, and within Benin is a large lake – Ganvie. Ganvie is home to the largest lake village in Africa, housing around 30,000 people, which is a huge amount – they live on a lake, for goodness sake!

Stilt house

The reason for people living on a lake is actually quite a sad one – it was to avoid slavery. When the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, to capture the natives for the slave trade, the Ganvie people discovered that their would-be captors’ religious beliefs meant they were forbidden to attack communities on water. So knowing this, they set about rebuilding their village ON the lake, not by it.

The only part of the village that is made up of dry land is the school and the cemetery. The rest of it is made up of around 3,000 stilted wooden buildings – homes and shops. Although the lake is not deep, it is many kilometres to the shore. There are no connections to and from the huts so canoe-like pirogues are used to get from one place to another, which seems very weird. Imagine having to boat over to your next-door neighbour, five metres away!

Boat

The Ganvie people, unsurprisingly, do a lot of fishing. They make “fish circles” out of foliage, net and bamboo. This is where small fish are kept protected so they can grow. After around nine months, the nest is closed and the fishy harvest is shared out between the people that created and maintained the circle.

Greenland snow homes

Igloo

Or igloos, as they are more widely known. These are such fascinating homes – how can ice and snow keep you warm? But keep you warm they do… Well, warm-ish.

Igloo doorway

Seeing as there’s not that much that grows in Greenland (it’s ever so cold, you know), the most plentiful resource around is snow, so homes are not built of wood but of snow and ice. These temporary homes are used in the brutal winters to shelter hunters (the Inuit men) during their long trips away.

Building an igloo

An igloo starts off being made of snow – not ice – but the snow has to be a very specific sort. It must be packed very tightly by winds, which means it can be cut easily into blocks. The blocks are positioned in a circle formation (leaving a space for the door) and are stacked up upon each other, getting progressively smaller. As you get higher up the wall, the blocks should overlap slightly and lean inwards to create the super strong dome shape. When you get right to the top you must cut a block specifically to fit the hole that is left. Always remember, you need to poke holes through the walls and ceiling to keep the igloo ventilated – without this you will end up with dangerous levels of carbon dioxide from the people breathing in there. I bet that’s a fact you never knew. Keep that in mind should you get stranded at the shops next winter, with two to three centimetres of snow outside.

The clever thing about igloos is that once they are occupied, the inside starts to thaw slightly. Then, when the Inuit men pop out for a seal or two, it freezes over again. Eventually the whole structure turns to ice, making it much stronger and warmer. Apparently, a well-made igloo, combined with body heat, can increase the outside temperature to up to 40 degrees… So if it’s -40 outside it will be 0 degrees inside. That still sounds flippin’ cold to me, but I suppose you are less likely to die! Cool, huh?

Photo credits: Christian Wirth, sly06, Bernard Gagnon, rapidtravelchai, Andy Carvin, Manu25, Clayoquot and Rritvos