One of the biggest – and most intriguing – mysteries in the underwater world is the sperm whale, particularly the massive and "strange" architecture of its head. Is it really strong that it gives the animal the power to ram and destroy ships as described long ago? Was Herman Melville right when he penned "Moby-Dick"?
A new study suggests that, theoretically, sperm whales can ram objects more than twice their size without suffering from any form of injury or damaging their head in the process. The hypothesis says that the section of its head called the "junk" may absorb and spread the stress to reduce the impact significantly.
"We showed that the connective tissue partitions within the junk have the ability to absorb impact stresses that could otherwise cause bone fractures," says Olga Panagiotopoulou, one of the researchers.
But is it also possible that the other parts can prevent injury? Is the sperm whale's head somehow designed for ramming, leaving the animal unscathed?
The Head Of The Sperm Whale
The sperm whale's head makes up one-third of the length of its body and contains the biggest brain among marine creatures. But the more important parts are the spermaceti organs, or those that contain the "sperm oil."
These are composed of the case and the junk, which are positioned on top of each other and have the distinct functions in echolocation, the process of bouncing off sounds across surfaces for navigation, especially since sperm whales are deep divers and therefore do not have adequate access to light.
However, both, not just the junk, may protect the head from injuries during a ramming since "the case surrounding the spermaceti is made up of extremely tough, thick fibrous connective tissue, which lies below a strong tendinousmuscular layer," expressed [PDF] a 2002 University of Utah, Salt Lake, study published in Journal of Experimental Biology.
Evolution Of The Sperm Whales
Another subject we can relate to the ramming hypothesis is the animal's evolution. The sperm whale, unlike several marine creatures, is a mammal, and a huge reason for this is its origins.
Many studies associate the modern-day sperm whales with hoofed animals, particularly artiodactyls or even-toed ungulates. It's believed that these animals spent more time in the waters due to presence of abundant food, and over time, they underwent evolution and adaptation to look exactly as they are now.
Interestingly, this idea may mean that sperm whales are relatives to sheep, deer, goats, and antelopes, which have the tendency to ram their horns against each other usually for competition or dominance. Is it possible that the same behavior may have been retained among the sperm whales?
Variances Of Head Size Between Males And Females
All sperm whales have large heads, but when compared between sexes, those of the males are more massive. One of the possible reasons is to "compete for love." Superior sperm whales have harems from whom the males choose for mating and reproduction. The bigger the harem, the bigger the sperm whale and the larger the weapon should be – in this case, the head. This may at least imply that whales are capable of ramming, even aggression, and that the size and design of the head may be as it is to help them win in these competitions.
Note, though, that these are all theories. A huge impediment to the research is the fact that actual ramming of ships is thinly documented. Nevertheless, the new study may pave the way for newer researches that can shed more light on this interesting behavior.