Sea monsters? This strange whale feeding technique may explain some ancient folklore

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Scientists are puzzling over a strange feeding technique they think whales have recently started using: The creatures swim across the surface of the ocean, open their mouths in a gaping yawn with their upper jaw just below the surface of the water and await hordes of fish. swim in it.

The method, however, may not be new at all. In fact, it may have been observed and recorded by our distant ancestors — knowledge that was buried in ancient texts and folklore, according to a peer-reviewed study published Tuesday in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

Modern researchers have long known that whales feed by swimming rapidly with their mouths ajar towards a school of fish or krill.

But the ‘trap feeding’ or ‘whitewater feeding’ method, as it’s known, was first observed in 2011, scientists have speculated it could be of a new method that whales have adapted due to changing ecological conditions. Or maybe she was only being spotted for the first time because new technologies, such as drones, are making it possible to observe whale behavior in unprecedented detail.

The study published on Tuesday, however, suggests humans recorded instances of whale trap feeding in the 13th century in Old Norse manuscripts, where the whales may have been described as a seemingly mystical being called “hafgufa.” “.

“While post-medieval scholars often confused the hafgufa with such fantastical creatures as the kraken and even mermaids, careful examination of earlier sources demonstrates that they explicitly refer to it as a ‘type’ of whale,” according to the author. ‘study. “This raises the interesting and significant possibility that, rather than first appearing in two species on opposite sides of the globe over the past two decades, these feeding strategies may have existed in the distant past. ”

One of the most compelling examples of ancient texts was found in a document called Konungs skuggsjá, or “The King’s Mirror”, which was composed for a Norwegian king in the 1200s and was probably an attempt to compile something resembling our modern encyclopedias, said study co-author Dr John McCarthy, a maritime archaeologist at Flinders University’s College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences in Australia.

The description in Konungs skuggsjá included bizarre elements, noting “in cases where he appeared to men, he looked more like an island than a fish”. But it also included that observation of hunting habits which is remarkably similar to modern observations of trap or water feeding.

An illustration from the Bern Physiologus - an early Christian collection of naturalistic and allegorical descriptions.

“It is said of the nature of this fish that when it goes to feed, it emits a great burp from its throat, accompanied by a large quantity of food. All kinds of fish nearby gather here, big and small, looking there for food and food. But the big fish keeps its mouth open for some time, no wider or narrower than a great strait or fjord, and unknowingly and without paying attention, the fish swoop in in droves. And when its belly and its mouth are full, (the hafgufa) closes its mouth, thus catching and hiding inside all the prey that had come to seek food.

The “belching” described in this text, the researchers suggested in the study, may refer to the way rorquals filter their meals, dissipating food to help attract more prey to their mouths. They also noted that there may be a “rotten cabbage” smell associated with whale feeding.

There are even earlier examples of similar descriptions that use different names to describe the “hafgufa” creature, perhaps dating as far back as a Greek text composed between 150 and 200 AD. Examples can also be found in medieval bestiaries, which were large catalogs of real and imagined creatures that included colorful depictions.

At the time they were adhered to, McCarthy noted, these texts were intended to be a serious work of reference, despite the inclusion of what appear to the modern eye to be descriptions of fictional animals.

“They could very easily have inaccurate information and next to accurate information,” he said. “We have no more ability to distinguish between these than they did back then, except that we now know through modern science which species (exist) actually and what is credible or No.”

Over time, descriptions of “hafgufa” and similar creatures may have been relegated to the world of fantasy and folklore because those early descriptions weren’t entirely accurate. McCarthy mentions a drawing from 1658 that shows a giant sea monster with two holes in its head spitting water. Although apparently fictional, the drawing could simply be “someone’s misinterpretation of a vent,” McCarthy said.

Perhaps this is how we arrive at the current perception of the “hafgufa” as a vague fictional sea monster. The video game God of War Ragnarok, for example, includes a “hafgufa” which is depicted as a giant jellyfish.

“I think the main takeaway here is just to respect people from the past as being just as smart as we are,” McCarthy added. “They looked at things in their best available setting. And so we shouldn’t dismiss the evidence…we should try to look at it from the perspective of the people at the time and put ourselves in their shoes.


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