A sperm whale’s head is built for ramming

illustration of the anatomy of a whale head

The large head of a sperm whale is filled with two organs, the spermaceti organ and the junk. Connective tissue inside the junk, a new study proposes, may help to protect the whale’s brain when ramming other whales — or ships.

Ali Nabavizadeh

The sperm whale is one of the odder-looking cetaceans swimming the oceans. Its massive, blocky head is unlike anything sported by other whales. The space above the mouth holds two large, oil-filled organs stacked one on top of the other — the spermaceti organ on top, and another below it called the (we did not make this up) junk. And in the last couple of decades, scientists have determined that the two organs amplify and direct the sonar clicks that the whales use to navigate in the water.

But there have long been suggestions that the massive head could serve another purpose — to ram other whales. The hypothesis dates back to the 19th century, when sperm whales sometimes rammed — and even sank — whaling vessels. “The structure and strength of the whale’s head is admirably designed for this mode of attack,” wrote Owen Chase, first mate of the Essex, which was sank by a whale and inspired the tale of Moby Dick.

Scientists have largely been leery of this hypothesis, though, in part because ramming would risk damage to organs used to generate sound, and because no one had seen a sperm whale ram another. Or at least no one had ever reported such an event in the scientific literature. But a new study, appearing April 5 in PeerJ, shows that Owen and his whaling buddies just may have been right.

Olga Panagiotopoulou of the University of Queensland in Australia and colleagues created computer simulations of a sperm whale’s head and what might happen when the head rammed another object. Partitions of connective tissue inside the junk, they found, appear to reduce the stresses created by impact, “and thus potentially function as a protective mechanism during ramming,” the team writes.

An impact creates tension in the connective tissue that serves as partitions between pockets of oil in the junk. That tension disperses the impact over a greater volume of the head, protecting both bone and soft tissue from injury. When the connective tissue was removed from the simulations, stresses increased by 45 percent and it became more likely that the skull would crack.

Scars on the heads of sperm whales tend to be around the junk, which may indicate that the whales avoid contact over the spermaceti organ — behind which is the whale’s sound generating system, the researchers note. So if the whales are ramming into one another, they probably can do so without hurting their ability to generate sonar clicks.

But are sperm whales really ramming each other? There is other evidence to suggest they just might be. For one, male sperm whales are as much as three times bigger than females, and such size differences are often found in species in which males compete through fighting. There are those sunken whaling ships, too, which add to the argument that ramming behavior may have been something natural for the whales.

But there’s also a report from a wildlife pilot who, on January 30, 1997, while flying over the Gulf of California, saw two males swim directly toward each other at a speed of about 17 kilometers per hour — and then collide, forehead to forehead.

Just before impact, the whales dove just below the surface of the water. That may explain why no one else has reported such sperm whale contests: If they’re occurring below the water’s surface, a person would have to be directly above the event, or in the water with the whales. And besides, if two 50-ton mammals are about to go head-to-head, it might be best to get out of the way.

Sarah Zielinski is the Editor, Print at Science News Explores. She has a B.A. in biology from Cornell University and an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She writes about ecology, plants and animals.

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