Thursday, May 31, 2007

Whale stories

Whales have gotten lots of news this week. After thousands of well-wishers followed their inland trek, errant mother and calf Delta and Dawn may finally have found their way from the fresh water of the Sacramento River back to the Pacific Ocean. A gray whale migrating from Mexico to Alaska beached itself in Seal Rock, Oregon, cause of death unknown but suspected to be from a large abscess. And while native subsistence hunting is relatively non-controversial, The International Whaling Commission deadlocked over Greenland's plans to expand its Inuit whale hunt.

Whales make the news because they’re big but they’re also underdogs, so to speak: during the 20th century over two million whales were hunted and caught, being prized for just about every part of their bodies. One of many interesting facts about whales is that they are the closest living relatives to hippopotamuses – I always wondered if that should be hippopotami? – evolving from a common ancestor some 54 million years ago.

I wonder, what else is big and living?

The Aspen tree consists of many genetically identical trees with connected roots. The largest known fully-connected Aspen is in Utah and some experts consider it the largest organism in the world by both mass and volume: It weighs 6,600 tons and covers 106 acres.

Oregon may have a beached whale, but it also has a fungus that spans 2,200 acres although some scientists say it’s a clonal colony of many individuals.

Saltwater crocodiles can reach 20 feet in length and 2 tons in weight, and some ostriches have grown to over 9 feet tall and weighing 345 lbs. By the way, ostrich eggs are not only the largest known, but they are also the largest single cell of any living being, weighing in at 3 lbs.

For animals, the blue whale wins the prize, reaching 110 ft in length and weighing 210 tons. Hmm, I wonder where they find a scale to weigh those things. But don’t look inside the placentas of sperm whales: you might just find a thirty-foot long roundworm.

The crew of Star Trek IV saved the earth by bringing back – or forward depending on how you look at it – two humpback whales. In their forward journeys may Delta and Dawn avoid both the abscesses of nature and the excesses of humans.

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