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By Eva Gruber
Moby Dick; or, the Whale is one of literary fiction’s most famous stories, Herman Melville’s first novel, written by the 33-year-old in 1852. However, adding more intrigue to the drama, there has always been dispute among mariners, marine biologists, and avid readers alike how much truth there was to the plot. In the book, a rogue albino sperm whale attacks and destroys the whaling vessel Pequod.
Indeed, Melville’s story was inspired by a real-life event where a ship called the Essex was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820. The captain of the ship was the one who first remarked that the head of the sperm whale seems designed to function as a battering ram. While the idea was the fundamental point behind the plot of Moby Dick, it has never actually been addressed from a scientific perspective.
Dr Olga Panagiotopoulou, from University of Queensland, is an expert in animal physiology and anatomy, specializing in large mammals. She led an international team of researchers seeking to address the issue and settle it once and for all, using modern scientific equipment. In her words, the head of the sperm whale is one of the strangest body parts in the animal kingdom.
The sperm whale has a massive “forehead”, which is composed internally of two large oil-filled sacs stacked on top of eachother. The spermaceti organ is filled with spermaceti oil, and is thought to be an amplifier of the sonar that the animal produces. Spermaceti oil was what whalers wanted from the sperm whales they hunted. Before the invention of electricity, it was the best oil to use in oil-burning lamps.
Scientists have long been skeptical of the ramming hypothesis, as the head contains important and delicate sensory organs that might be easily harmed. The understanding is that the oil sacs play important roles during sonar activity, communication with other sperm whales, and potentially providing buoyancy as well.
However, the study has concluded that the second oil-filled sac, called the junk sac, may actually work as absorbing impacts and softening blows from impacts to the head – but not necessarily for the reason that Melville and whaling captains thought.
Male sperm whales often engage in head-on battles with each other, over females. They theorize that the junk sac may actually be the result of selection resulting from male-to-male aggressive behavior. Other animals which engage in ramming behavior during male-to-male aggressive encounters have similar anatomy.
While this study has some limitations to the amount of extrapolation that might take place, the researchers hope that it stimulates further inquiry perhaps using MRI scans and other high-tech equipment, to settle the issue once and for all.