According to Herman Melville, Moby-Dick was a lean, mean ship-bashing machine, a sperm whale capable of smashing wooden whaling ships into toothpicks with nothing more than the ramming force of its giant head. Melville based the book Moby-Dick partly on the alleged sinking of the Essex by a whale in 1820 and there are other accounts of similar destructive rammings. With the new (and much needed) attention being given to sports concussions, some scientists and marine biologists wondered if the sperm whale’s head and brain could actually stand the punishment of head-against-hull. Leave it to a group of engineers to find out.
The sperm whale forehead is one of the strangest structures in the animal kingdom. Internally the forehead is composed of two large oil-filled sacs, stacked one on top of the other, known as the spermaceti organ and the junk sacs. It is the oil within the upper spermaceti organ that was the main target of the whaling industry in the early 19th century.
That’s Dr. Olga Panagiotopoulou from the University of Queensland, lead author of the study published in PeerJ. Her team of researchers from Australia, UK, USA and Japan was initially skeptical that the head of a sperm whale, which contains its sensitive sonar-producing organs, could survive ramming, especially since there were few verifiable eyewitness accounts of them.
Using known data on sperm whale skulls, skeletal structures and tissue, the team created a computer simulation of the whale-ramming process, taking into account head size and direction of the hit. The simulation showed that the junk sacs acted as shock absorbers, keeping the skull from breaking while cushioning the internal organs.
The team speculated that this protection evolved as larger male sperm whales (only the males butt heads – go figure) with better shock absorbing junk sacs survived the hits from ramming ships and other males as part of mating competitions.
So sperm whales are capable of being the ship bashers Melville and others say they are. Head ramming is common in other whales, not to mention some mammals. Dr. Panagiotopoulou says they will be testing the model on other species.
Our study has limitations but we hope to stimulate future research to unravel the mechanical function of the head during head-butting events in other species, where aggressive behaviour has been observed, but remains unmodelled.
Dr. Panagiotopoulou, are you ready for some football?