Call me Ismael, but if a sperm whale head could be used as a battering ram capable of sinking a ship considerably bigger than its own size I would be all for it, especially, if we’re talking about ships in a Japanese whaling fleet. But the Japanese are smart people (not because they’re Asian), but they generally only pick on Minke whales during their whaling seasons these days.
Sperm whale as weapon, the thing of literature
In a recent study published today in the biological and medical sciences journal PeerJ, researchers took on the idea of whether or not a whale would ram a ship in fashion first introduced by Herman Melville in Moby Dick.
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University of Queensland researcher Dr Olga Panagiotopoulou, part of an international team researching the theory, seriously has her doubts. Before we get into her research, I’ve seen enough fights in London where a head butt has been used to put someone right down that I’ve, admittedly, used my own to end a few fights ahead of it getting bad with a weapon that doesn’t make a lot of sense, my own damn head. So…while her research says, “maybe” I wan’t it to say, “yes, that makes sense.”
“The forehead of the sperm whale is one of the strangest structures in the animal kingdom,” said Dr Panagiotopoulou, an expert in the anatomy, bone biology, and mechanics of whales and a number of other large animals.
“Internally, the whale’s forehead is composed of two large oil-filled sacs stacked on top of each other, known as the spermaceti organ and the junk sacs.
“The oil in the upper spermaceti organ was the main target of the whaling industry in the early 19th century.”
The doctor does quickly point out that if a whale was to ram a ship with its head, it would likely be a male sperm whale whose heads are much bigger than their female counterparts.
“Such difference between the sexes are commonly found in species in which males fight to compete for females,” she said.
“After a large male rammed and sank his ship in the Pacific in 1820, whaler Owen Chase described the whale’s head as admirably designed for this mode of attack,” Dr Panagiotopoulou said.
“The theory was instrumental in inspiring Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, but until our research, its mechanical feasibility had never been addressed.
“The scientific community received the ramming hypothesis with reluctance.
“This was mainly because the front part of the sperm whale head houses sensitive anatomical structures that are essential for sonar communication between whales, and they would be in harm’s way in a ramming event.”
Another skeptic in David Carrier
Professor David Carrier, from the University of Utah, points out that whales just can’t go getting concussions all the time as their heads are important for potential communication with sonar clicking and even buoyancy and, well, I’ve never head-butted someone and risked drowning. He doesn’t necessarily see it either.
The interdisciplinary research team from Australia, the UK, the USA and Japan used advanced computer modeling to look into this ramming described first in 19th century literature.
And just like a bar fight for humans, Dr Panagiotopoulou pointed out that facial fractures are a distinct possibility. But, doctor, that hasn’t stopped me so…
“But our findings show that connective tissue partitions within the junk of the sperm whale forehead may function as a shock absorber,” she said.
I want that.
“This mechanism is important to reduce impact stress and protect the skull from failure.”
“The mechanical advantage of the junk’s structure may be the result of selection and acquired traits related to male-to-male aggressive behaviour,” she said.
“Male sperm whales may not fight frequently, but we know that aggressive ramming behaviour is a common characteristic in bottle nosed whales, killer whales, narwhales, pilot whales and the group of mammals from which whales are derived- the even-toed ungulates, such as goats.
“A closer look into the anatomy of the heads of other species that ram (such as monkeys and hippopotamuses) may reveal a variety of protective mechanisms.
“Our study has limitations but we hope it might stimulate future research to unravel the mechanical function of the head during head-butting events in other species, where aggressive behaviour has been observed but remains unmodelled.”
Essentially, the good doctor is saying she just doesn’t know. And I’m going to point this out…I’m guessing her computers were not hurling harpoons into the whales in the models. If someone is trying to slowly kill you with a hooked-spear? I say yes, sperm whales will capsize your ship in a heartbeat if you happen to be whaling.