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FACT OF THE WEEK: Hairy Humpback Whales

FACT OF THE WEEK: Humpback whales have hair!

MORE ON THIS: You probably know that whales and dolphins are marine mammals. Marine mammals, like terrestrial or land mammals, must have a certain set of characteristics to be called mammals – these include giving birth to live young and having hairs on their bodies. But where are the hairs on whales?

In fact, you have probably seen the hairs on humpback whales and not known what they were. The bumps on the rostrum, or head, and the pectoral fins of a humpback whale are, in fact, hair follicles. Called “tubercles,” these fist-sized bumps contain one hair follicle each, connected to a set of sensitive nerves. Why do humpback whales have these sensitive whiskers? There are multiple speculative theories in scientific literature, but no consensus.

Some think that tubercles serve as a sensory organ for the whale. It is thought that the single hair in each tubercle is used to detect temperature change in the water, the speed of the whale, and may even help to detect the presence of prey in the whale’s “blind spots.” Along with the idea that these tubercles serve a sensory purpose, comes an idea that tubercles assist with the hydrodynamics of the animal. It has been shown that these bumps increase lift and decrease drag in the water. Humpbacks are assumed to be one of the most acrobatic whales for their size. These tubercles may be a contributing factor for their agility.

Whale tubercles have inspired design ideas behind wind turbines, airplane wings and propellers. An energy company called WhalePower is applying tubercle-inspired bumps to numerous types of wind turbines and fans including industrial ceiling fans and computer fans to improve their efficiency, safety, and cost-effectiveness. These hairy humpback whales have inspired a new type of “greener” energy technology.

FURTHER READING:

  1. Forestell, P. H. and Kaufman, G. D. 2008. Humpbacks of Hawaiʻi: The Long Journey Back. Hawaii, USA. 216 pages.
  2. “Whalepower.” N.D. The Science.
  3. Canter, N. 2008. Humpback whales inspire new wind turbine technology.

Written by Stephanie Stack

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