11 Buoyant Facts About Humpback Whales

iStock
iStock

Humpback whales are some of the most intelligent animals on the planet. Hunted almost to extinction during the 19th and early 20th centuries, their populations are slowly recovering, and now they’re a favorite sight for whale-watchers. Here are 11 facts you might not have known about the mysterious marine giants, who are known for their acrobatics and for sidling right up alongside boats to get a good look at their human observers.

1. THEY’RE LONGER THAN A SCHOOL BUS.

North American school buses max out at about 45 feet long. Female humpback whales—which are larger than males—can be up to 60 feet long, and their pectoral fins alone can be 15 feet long. At birth, humpbacks weigh around 1 ton, doubling in size during their first year of life and eventually reaching up to 40 tons.

2. THEY HAVE HUGE MOUTHS.

In keeping with the rest of their bodies, their mouths are huge—their tongue alone is the size of a small car. But the opening to their throat is only about the size of a grapefruit, according to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, so they can’t swallow large prey. Instead, they eat krill, small fish, and plankton. They can eat up to a ton of food per day, according to the 2015 documentary Humpback Whales.

3. THOSE BUMPS ARE HAIR FOLLICLES.

Each of the distinctive bumps along a humpback’s head holds a single hair that the whale uses to sense the environment around it. These hairs help the whale glean information about water temperature and quality.

4. THEIR FLUKES ARE LIKE FINGERPRINTS.

Like human fingerprints, humpback tails can be used to identify individuals. The pigmentation and scarring on their flukes is unique, and scientists document these markings to keep track of certain whales that they see repeatedly during their research trips.

5. THEY LIVE A LONG TIME, BUT NOT AS LONG AS MANY OTHER WHALES.

Most humpback whales make it into their 60s, but scientists estimate that they may live up to 80 years. Still, that’s nothing compared to bowhead whales, a species whose oldest known individuals have lived to be 200 years old.

6. THEY HAVE THE LONGEST MIGRATIONS OF ANY MAMMAL.

Each year, humpbacks migrate from their feeding grounds in cold waters toward warm breeding areas—Alaskan whales head to Hawaii, while Californian whales head to Mexico and Costa Rica, and Australian whales migrate to the Southern Ocean. These biannual journeys can involve distances of up to 5000 miles, which is officially the longest known migration of any mammal on earth.

The fastest documented migration of a humpback whale was observed in 1988, when a humpback traveled from Sitka, Alaska to to Hawaii in just 39 days—or possibly less, depending on how soon it left Alaskan waters after the researchers sighted it the first time [PDF]. That’s a journey of about 2750 miles point to point.

7. THEY HAVE BEEN KNOWN TO DEFEND OTHER SPECIES FROM ORCAS.

In 2009, marine ecologist Robert Pitman watched two humpback whales rescue a seal from a group of orcas that were pursuing it. The seal ended up on one of the humpbacks’ chests, and when it began to fall off, the whale even nudged it back on with a flipper, indicating that it was an intentional act of altruism. Though it’s not entirely clear why they would do so, it appears to be an offensive response on the part of the humpbacks, who may intervene whenever they hear killer whales fighting, whether one of their own is involved or not.

8. ONLY THE MALES SING.

Their songs may have made the species famous, but not every humpback sings. It’s strictly a male behavior, and plays an important part in courtship displays. There’s plenty of mystery that still surrounds the science of whale songs, but in 2013, researchers discovered that it’s a group activity that involves even sexually immature males. Both young and mature whales sing in chorus, giving the immature whales a lesson in singing and courtship behavior, and helping older whales amplify their songs to draw females to the area from afar. Other research has found that these songs change over times, and whales learn them much like a human learns a new song, bit by bit.

9. BREACHING IS LIKE YELLING

Though humpbacks are famous for their songs, that’s not the only way they communicate. Scientists only recently discovered that breaching—when whales jump up into the air, crashing back down into the water—is a way to keep in touch with far-away friends. Humpbacks leap higher and more often than other whales, and while spectacular to witness, the moves come at a cost: It takes a lot of energy, especially when the whales are fasting. But after 200 hours observing humpbacks migrating past the Australian coast, a team from the University of Queensland found that the whales were more likely to breach when the nearest group of other humpbacks was more than two and a half miles away, and that they were more likely to do so when it was windy out. It appears that breaching is a way to communicate over long distances when there is a lot of competing noise.

10. THEIR SONGS ARE INCREDIBLY COMPLEX …

Humpback songs aren’t just showy. They have their own grammar, and their songs are hierarchical, like sentences. In human language, this means that the meaning of sentences depends on the clauses within them and the words within them. In 2006, mathematical analysis found that humpbacks use phrases, too. And they remix their tunes, too, tweaking them and changing them over time, often combining new and old melodies. Humpback songs have even been visualized as sheet music.

11. … AND HELPED END WHALING.

Researchers estimate [PDF] that prior to the whaling boom of the 19th and 20th centuries, there were around 112,000 humpbacks in the North Atlantic alone, but that by the time commercial whaling was banned in the region in 1955, there were less than 1000 individuals left. Between 1947 and the 1970s, the USSR alone killed an estimated 338,000 humpbacks, falsifying data it was required to submit to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling to disguise the illegal magnitude of its hunting operation. It has been called “one of the greatest environmental crimes of the 20th century.”

While the populations have grown and humpbacks have been taken off the endangered species list, some estimates put the worldwide humpback population at only 40 percent of what it was before the whaling era. Whaling was banned throughout the rest of the world in 1966, though Norway, Iceland, and Japan still practice it.

Roger Payne, one of the scientists who first discovered that humpbacks sing songs, later became instrumental in pushing to protect the species in the 1960s. In 1970, he released his recording of humpback songs as a record, which remains the best-selling nature recording in history. In 1972, the songs were played at a Greenpeace meeting, and ended up galvanizing a new movement: Save the Whales. “It certainly was a huge factor in convincing us that the whales were an intelligent species here on planet Earth and actually made music, made art, created an aesthetic,” as former Greenpeace director Rex Weyler told NPR in 2014. The campaign gained traction with other organizations, too, and helped lead to the International Whaling Commission’s 1982 whaling ban.

The 10 Best Memorial Day 2020 Sales

iRobot,GoWise,Funko via Wayfair, Entertainment Earth
iRobot,GoWise,Funko via Wayfair, Entertainment Earth

The Memorial Day sales have started early this year, and it's easy to find yourself drowning in offers for cheap mattresses, appliances, shoes, and grills. To help you cut through the noise and focus on the best deals around, we threw together some of our favorite Memorial Day sales going on right now. Take a look below.

1. Leesa

A Leesa Hybrid mattress.
A Leesa Hybrid mattress.
Leesa

Through May 31, you can save up to $400 on every mattress model Leesa has to offer, from the value-minded Studio by Leesa design to the premium Leesa Legend, which touts a combination of memory foam and micro-coil springs to keep you comfortable in any position you sleep in.

Find it: Leesa

2. Sur La Table

This one is labeled as simply a “summer sale,” but the deals are good only through Memorial Day, so you should get to it quickly. This sale takes up to 20 percent off outdoor grilling and dining essentials, like cast-iron shrimp pans ($32), a stainless steel burger-grilling basket ($16), and, of course, your choice of barbeque sauce to go along with it.

Find it: Sur la Table

3. Wayfair

KitchenAid Stand Mixer on Sale on Wayfair.
Wayfair/KitchenAid

Wayfair is cutting prices on all manner of appliances until May 28. Though you can pretty much find any home appliance imaginable at a low price, the sale is highlighted by $130 off a KitchenAid stand mixer and 62 percent off this eight-in-one GoWise air fryer.

And that’s only part of the brand’s multiple Memorial Day sales, which you can browse here. They’re also taking up to 40 percent off Samsung refrigerators and washing machines, up to 65 percent off living room furniture, and up to 60 percent off mattresses.

Find it: Wayfair

4. Blue Apron

If you sign up for a Blue Apron subscription before May 26, you’ll save $20 on each of your first three box deliveries, totaling $60 in savings. 

Find it: Blue Apron

5. The PBS Store

Score 20 percent off sitewide at Shop.PBS.org when you use the promo code TAKE20. This slashes prices on everything from documentaries like Ken Burns’s The Roosevelt: An Intimate History ($48) and The Civil War ($64) to a Pride & Prejudice tote bag ($27) and this precious heat-changing King Henry VIII mug ($11) that reveals the fates of his many wives when you pour your morning coffee.

Find it: The PBS Store

6. Amazon

eufy robot vacuum.
Amazon/eufy

While Amazon doesn’t have an official Memorial Day sale, the ecommerce giant still has plenty of ever-changing deals to pick from. Right now, you can take $100 off this outdoor grill from Weber, $70 off a eufy robot vacuum, and 22 percent off the ASUS gaming laptop. For more deals, just go to Amazon and have a look around.

7. Backcountry

You can save up to 50 percent on tents, hiking packs, outdoor wear, and more from brands like Patagonia, Marmot, and others during Backcountry's Memorial Day sale.

Find it: Backcountry

8. Entertainment Earth

Funko Pops on Sale on Entertainment Earth.
Entertainment Earth/Funko

From now until June 2, Entertainment Earth is having a buy one, get one half off sale on select Funko Pops. This includes stalwarts like the Star Wars and Batman lines, and more recent additions like the Schitt's Creek Funkos and the pre-orders for the upcoming X-Men movie line.

Find it: Entertainment Earth

9. Moosejaw

With the promo code SUNSCREEN, you can take 20 percent off one full-price item at Moosejaw, along with finding up to 30 percent off select items during the outdoor brand's summer sale. These deals include casual clothing, outdoor wear, trail sneakers, and more. 

Find it: Moosejaw

10. Osprey

Through May 25, you can save 25 percent on select summer items, and 40 percent off products from last season. This can include anything from hiking packs and luggage to outdoorsy socks and hats. So if you're planning on getting acquainted with the great outdoors this summer, now you can do it on the cheap.

Find it: Osprey

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

10 Tips for Watching Backyard Wildlife

Fiona the fox, exploring her territory.
Fiona the fox, exploring her territory.
Courtesy of Kerry Wolfe

Whether you live among acres of sprawling land or look out over a sliver of city sidewalk, if you pay close enough attention, you’re bound to see wildlife right outside your door. So get familiar with your nonhuman neighbors with these 10 tips for backyard wildlife watching. After all, the animals are there—whether you notice them or not.

1. Get curious.

Watching wildlife is a wonderful way to learn about the other inhabitants of your yard. “You can go out and go for a hike and walk to find something, but there’s really a value in sitting quietly in one space and seeing what comes along,” Brian Hess, a wildlife biologist with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, tells Mental Floss. Charismatic creatures like deer and bears are exciting, but there’s no need to wait for something large to come ambling through. Peek between the branches of a shrub and you may find a bird nest tucked within the greenery; move a rock and you’ll likely spot worms wriggling around in the moist earth. Try varying your routine, too, as different animals become more active depending on the time of day.

2. Don’t disturb the wildlife.

A male pheasant walking
Let them strut their stuff in peace.
Courtesy of Kerry Wolfe

Treat wildlife watching as if you’re window shopping in a store stocked with stuff you can’t afford: Basically, look but don’t touch. “My general rule of thumb whenever I’m watching wildlife is if they change their behavior because of my presence, that probably means I’m too close and should back off,” Hess says.

Keeping your distance will help both you and the wildlife stay safe—and make sure any curious pets don’t get too close to wild creatures, either. An animal may attack if it feels threatened, which, as anyone who’s seen Homeward Bound (1993) knows, can lead to some pretty painful encounters. There’s also the risk of zoonotic diseases; though fairly rare, North Americans in particular have to be cautious of rabies.

Avoid feeding wildlife, too (bird feeders are fine—more on that later). Don’t chuck your dog’s uneaten kibble or your dinner scraps out the back door, as teaching wildlife to rely on people for meals can cause unwanted learned behavior and lead to human-animal conflicts.

3. Make your yard wildlife-friendly.

One of the best ways to attract wildlife is to add native plants to your yard. “You can put an oak tree in your yard, watch the life come to it, and help rebuild your local ecosystem,” Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, tells Mental Floss. A perfectly manicured patch of grass or an exotic shrub may look lovely, but it doesn’t create a suitable habitat for many animals. Most insects are specialized feeders, meaning they’ve evolved over millions of years to eat particular plants. Basically, if you want to see more monarchs, you better start planting some milkweed.

Short on yard space? Urban apartment dwellers can stick pots of native plants in window boxes. Adding even a tiny bit of greenery will help city animals who may not have access to as many resources as their rural counterparts.

Finding native plants is fairly simple. Organizations like the National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society (and if you’re in California, the California Native Plant Society) have online databases you can browse.

And, if you’re attracting birds, avoid turning your yard into a stage for Windex commercial-level crashes. If your glass is spotless, stick some decals or tempera paint onto your windows to help prevent bird collisions.

4. Maintain your bird feeder.

Though native plants are a great way to attract wildlife, you can also supplement your yard’s offerings with various bird feeders [PDF]. Make sure you regularly clean your feeders, lest the seeds get wet and grow mold. You should also rake away any discarded shells scattered on the ground, which can collect harmful bacteria. If you live in an area with bears, check with your state’s wildlife agency for their seasonal best practices regarding bird feeders, as foraging ursines love to snack on high-fat, high-protein seeds.

5. Provide water.

A red fox drinks from a water bowl in a backyard
Chasing chipmunks really works up a thirst.
Courtesy of Kerry Wolfe

A tub of water in a shady spot away from your house will help your resident critters and thirsty passersby. If you can, put a large rock or brick in the water bowl, and fill the basin so only part of the object is submerged. This will provide insects and other animals with an extra perch to land on, as they may have a tough time sipping water from a steep-sided dog dish. The rock will also give small creatures an extra escape option, should they accidentally fall into the tub and go for an unplanned swim. Make sure you clean the water bowl regularly—standing water can quickly become a soupy mess of dirt, guano, and mosquito eggs.

6. Get excited about insects!

Put away the insecticide and instead embrace your resident creepy-crawlies. You can have a lot of fun identifying the beetles and butterflies that frequent your yard. And about 90 percent of flowering plants depend on pollinators, so not only is that bee bumbling around your garden cute, it’s also playing a vital role in helping your local ecosystem.

While insects are fascinating in their own right, you can also view them as food for larger creatures. They’re a nutritious meal for animals like birds, lizards, frogs, squirrels, bats, opossums, and much more. Caterpillars in particular are a great source of grub for local and migrant bird populations. “If you want chickadees breeding in your yard, you need to have 6000 to 9000 caterpillars or the chickadees can’t rear their young,” Tallamy tells Mental Floss.

7. When looking for wildlife, use your senses.

There’s a reason avid birders get to know their bird calls. “Hearing wildlife is a great way to start to pay attention,” John Rowden, senior director of bird-friendly communities at the Audubon Society, tells Mental Floss. “Learn the sounds, and it will help you identify the animals.” And if your yard suddenly erupts with a cacophony of squirrel alarm calls, there’s a good chance there’s some sort of predator lurking nearby. Identifying the sounds of nocturnal animals like owls and raccoons will help you discern who's been coming after dark.

You may be able to smell some animals, too. Skunks unleash a notoriously stinky spray when warding off threats; foxes and mountain lions mark their territories with their own funky scents; and desert dwellers claim they can often smell javelina before they see them.

8. Look for signs animals have visited.

Squirrel Tracks in Snow on a Wooden Railing
Clear signs of squirrel traffic.
Colin Temple/iStock via Getty Images

You don’t have to see the animals themselves to find hints of their presence. A fallen feather, a muddy print, a well-walked trail etched into the dirt, and a heaping pile of scat are all clues as to who’s been sharing your yard.

9. Get technological.

Sure, watching wildlife is a great excuse to unplug, but embracing tools and technology can help enhance your experience. A pair of binoculars will transform that blurry blot in the sky into a clearly identifiable bird; a trail camera will snap footage of whatever walks through your yard when you’re not looking. Apps like iNaturalist can help you identify various species and share your findings with fellow members of the community.

10. Document your wildlife observations.

Keep a record of the creatures who frequent your yard. This will help you get a sense of their routines and better identify individual animals. You can keep your logs simple—a quick journal entry or a series of photographs is an excellent way to document your resident wildlife. As a bonus, your observations can also help with citizen science projects, such as the Monarch Joint Venture or Audubon’s Hummingbirds at Home project.