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Friday, April 12, 2002

ANIMAL TRACKER

Humpback whale


* Japanese name: Zatokujira
* Scientific name: Megaptera novaeangliae
* Description: Measuring 12-14 meters, weighing 25-30 tons and with flippers up to 5.5 meters long, the humpback whale is unmistakable. It is black, with white patches on the flippers, which may also be encrusted with barnacles. The huge mouth (if you ever happened to look inside it) contains 540-800 baleen plates -- the filters that the whale uses for feeding. Newborns are 4-5 meters long. Humpbacks are some of the most acrobatic whales and get their English and Japanese names from the curving way they dive. The scientific name means "big-winged New Englander" -- a reference to the huge flippers (used to maneuver, herd fish, slap water and touch their young), and the fact that it was first seen off the coast of North America, New England.
* Where to find them: In this part of the world, off the coast of Okinawa and the Ogasawara Islands, where the photo was taken. But humpbacks are renowned for the huge distances they migrate. Some populations in the Caribbean travel to Iceland and Norway during the summer, returning to breed in warmer waters in the winter. Hunting severely depleted numbers, and despite the international ban on commercial whaling in 1985, the humpback is still listed as vulnerable.
* Food: Krill and shoaling fish such as herring, mackerel, sand lance and capelin. Japan claims that whales eat commercially exploited fish and uses this as justification for resuming commercial whaling, but humpbacks are generalized feeders -- they eat a wide range of prey.
* Special features: In breeding areas, males sing a remarkable courtship song, lasting from 35 minutes to several days, pausing only to take a breath. The male introduces themes into his songs, repeating them over and over. If he successfully attracts and impregnates a female, gestation of the fetus takes about 11 months. Mothers nurse their young with nutritious milk for about five months, after which the baby starts eating solids. Humpbacks have several special techniques for catching food, the most impressive being "bubble netting." The whale dives under a shoal of fish and spirals upwards, blowing bubbles in a circle. The bubbles "herd" the fish into the center of the circle, and the whale swims up through the net with its mouth open, gulping down all the prey.



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