Sperm whales are often touted in literature as able to ram ships, sending sailors to the bottom of the ocean. But, are these behemoth marine mammals actually able to crash their heads into seafaring vessels?

In the days of widespread whaling, sailors usually had massive advantages in weaponry and numbers. However, at times, the marine animals are said to have occasionally fought back against their human hunters.

One of the most famous of these incidents occurred in 1820, when a sperm whale is said to have mashed a whaling vessel to bits. This story inspired the novel "Moby Dick," although the antagonist in that story is described as a white whale.

The 19th Century story was also the inspiration for "In the Heart of the Sea," a story published in 2000, which was released as a feature-length film in 2015.

Researchers wanted to know if it is actually possible for a sperm whale to destroy a whaling ship by ramming the vehicle with its massive head. In all, four supposed incidents of sperm whales ramming whaling ships are well-known to historians. Each of these occurred between the years 1820 and 1902.

Sperm whales are the largest toothed whale in the world, with males reaching more than 50 feet in length and 45 tons in weight. Roughly one-third of that significant length is the head. However, whaling ships of the 19th Century could weigh four to five times that significant mass.

The massive head of sperm whales facilitates acoustic waves, an ability which could, theoretically, damaged by the behavior. Two large compartments, filled with oil, are contained within the skull of the animals. The contents of one is known as the spermaceti organ, while the other filling is called junk.

"But our findings show that connective tissue partitions within the junk of the sperm whale forehead may function as a shock absorber. 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," said Olga Panagiotopoulou of the University of Queensland.

So, although there is no firm evidence of such attacks on ships, researchers were able to show that sperm whales could, theoretically, ram a wooden marine vessel.

Analysis of the ability of sperm whales to destroy ships by ramming them was published in the journal Peer J.

Photo: Amila Tennakoon | Flickr

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