‘Bingo!’ In a remarkable first, humpback whales spied using their fins to scoop up fish

Science | AAAS | 10/15/2019 | Staff
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When Madison Kosma spied a humpback whale thrashing wildly off the coast of southeast Alaska, she was sure it was hunting salmon. But she was perplexed by the whale’s seemingly uncoordinated movements. To get a better vantage, the graduate student at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks snapped photos from high atop a tower of crab pots—but it wasn’t high enough to capture what was happening. The next year, she took video using a GoPro on a long stick—still not high enough. The third year, she bought a drone and “[it] changed everything.” For the first time, scientists have footage of the whales’ complex fishing routine, which Kosma describes in a new paper: The humpbacks use their pectoral fins to create minicurrents that sweep in unsuspecting fish and pull them into the whales’ dark, cavelike mouths.

“Bingo!” says Richard Connor, a marine biologist and cetacean expert at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth who was not involved in the study. He says researchers have suspected for 90 years that humpbacks use their long fins to fish. But the drone footage is the first solid evidence.

Fishermen - Biologists - Size - Shape - Humpback

Fishermen and biologists have long puzzled over the size and distinctive shape of a humpback’s pectoral fins, which can grow up to 5 meters in length, and measure from one-quarter to one-third of their body length. (Indeed, the unusual fins gave rise to their scientific name: Megaptera novaeangliae, or “giant wing of New England.”) In contrast, the pectorals of other whales are only one-seventh the length of their bodies. What researchers do know is that even though the winglike extensions don’t help on long journeys, they do help the cetaceans maneuver in shallow water and rapidly accelerate when feeding on small prey such as herring.

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Drone - Images—taken

From the drone’s images—taken...
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