I have been meaning to blog about whales for some time. My apologies to those who have gone without a good whale navigation blog for too long and who have doubtless suffered needlessly as a result.
A story about the way whales navigate made the news a few weeks ago. Having rushed to buy the academic research paper behind the story, entitled ‘Straight as an Arrow’, I can confirm that it is indeed a fascinating story. However, the fascination lies not in the research content but in its honest gaps. For the research a team tracked humpback whales over journeys of 8000km with great precision using satellite-monitored radio tags.
These researchers knew to expect impressive navigational abilities, but were shocked by quite how direct the whales were. They move in straight lines, which poses the obvious but wonderful question: How?
Going into the research, it was thought that the two known methods for animals undertaking this scale of migration would explain things comfortably. Surely the animals were using either the sun and time, or the Earth’s magnetic field? The problem is that both these methods lead to dependable and detectable inaccuracies, they are predictably imperfect. Far from finding the expected imperfections, they found only precision. The conclusion of the research was rather refreshing in its pleas of ignorance:
‘… it seems unlikely that individual magnetic and solar orientation cues can, in isolation, explain the extreme navigational precision achieved by humpback whales.’
In other words: it is clearer than ever that these marvellous creatures can navigate brilliantly and clearer than ever before that we don’t know how they do it. Science that points to ignorance is often so much more beautiful than the occasions when it comes up with an easy answer.