Whales are Trees

Would you say this object — I present two views — is animal, vegetable or mineral?

Baleen 1 Baleen 2

Okay, the title of the post gives the answer away. The pictures show a piece of baleen, the stuff that hangs from the upper jaw of baleen whales — the larger kind that live off krill. We went whale watching off the coast of Maine over the weekend and the friendly ship-board marine biologist passed this piece of baleen around. It feels — and I kid you not — like a large piece of coconut husk. Baleen comprises about 800 hard bony plates (you are seeing about 50 of them edge on in the first view) whose leading edges face the outside of the whale’s mouth. The inside — the second view — is a broom-like mass of rough, dry, brown fibers. The whale gulps, puffs out seawater, and swallows trapped small organisms like krill.

Watching whales was one of the most unsettling experiences of my life. Here is what you see (if you are lucky):

Whales 1

That’s it. No spectacular Discovery Channel shots of aerial flips. Just a serene lifestyle of alternating fifteen-minute deep dives (up to 1500 feet) looking for deep-swimming food, and flopping around on the surface taking a few deep breaths. The whales we saw — Finbacks — are the second largest species after Blue whales.

But despite the lack of documentary-style flourishes and underwater shots, watching whales live is a mind-stopper. It suddenly hits you that there are these huge 70-foot things sharing the planet with you. Here is another picture:

Whales 2

The one on the left is arching its back preparing for a deep dive.

Watching these unsettling animals, which share the design space of DNA-encoded life with us, and later, touching the piece of baleen, it suddenly struck me that distinctions like plant and animal are extraordinarily arbitrary. Evolutionary history is a path-dependent accident. The commonalities of life forms run deeper.

Like trees, whales are large, sedate factories that spend their lives turning some of the smallest pieces of life — krill — into its largest structures — themselves. Like giant trees, they sit above the apex predators and outside the logic of hierarchical predation.

It also struck me that whales are the Walmarts of the oceans. They are huge, but get their income through a large quantity of small calorie packs.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter