A strange feeding strategy that scientists believe whales have only recently begun using is causing them some confusion: The creatures swim to the ocean’s surface, open their mouths to a gaping yawn with their upper jaw just below the surface, and wait for a great number of fish to swim in.
However, the approach may not be entirely novel. According to a peer-reviewed study that was published on Tuesday in the journal Marine Mammal Science, it may have been observed and recorded by our distant ancestors, knowledge that was buried in ancient texts and folklore.
Modern scientists have known for a long time that whales feed by swiftly swimming toward a school of fish or krill with their mouths open.
However, when the technique known as “trap feeding” or “tread-water feeding” was first observed in 2011, researchers speculated that whales may have adapted a novel feeding strategy as a result of shifting ecological conditions. Or, perhaps it was only observed for the first time due to the unprecedented detail of whale behavior that can be observed thanks to new technologies like drones.
The review distributed Tuesday, in any case, recommends that people recorded examples of whales trap taking care of in the thirteenth 100 years in Old Norse compositions, where the whales might have been depicted as an apparently enchanted being known as the “hafgufa.”
According to the study, “while postmedieval scholars have frequently confused the hafgufa with fantastical creatures such as the kraken and even mermaids,” earlier sources explicitly refer to it as a “type” of whale. This raises the intriguing and significant possibility that, rather than being discovered for the first time in two species on opposite sides of the globe within the last two decades, these feeding strategies may have existed in the past.
The ‘hafgufa’ through time
According to study coauthor Dr. John McCarthy, a maritime archaeologist in the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at Flinders University in Australia, one of the most compelling examples from ancient texts was found in a document called Konungs skuggsjá, or “The King’s Mirror.” This document was written for a Norwegian king in the 1200s and was likely an attempt to compile something similar to our modern encyclopedias, McCarthy said.
“in those instances where it has appeared to men, it has looked more like an island than a fish,” according to the description in Konungs skuggsjá. However, it also included this observation of hunting practices that are strikingly comparable to contemporary observations of tread-water or trap feeding.
“It is said that this fish’s nature is such that when it goes to eat, it makes a loud belch out of its throat, which brings a lot of food with it. Small and large fish of all sizes congregate nearby in search of nourishment and food. However, the large fish keeps its mouth open for a short period of time—no more or less wide than a large sound or fjord—and the fish rush in, unaware and unaware. The hafgufa also closes its mouth when it is full, catching and concealing all of the prey that had come in search of food. “The researchers in the study suggested that the “belch” described in that text might refer to the way rorqual whales filter their meals, removing some food to help lure more prey into their mouths. They also said that whale feeding can sometimes smell like “rotten cabbage.”
Whale facts versus folklore
There are even earlier examples of similar descriptions of the “hafgufa” creature that use different names, possibly from a Greek text written between 150 and 200 AD. Medieval bestiaries, which included vividly drawn depictions of both real and imagined creatures, are another source of examples.
Despite the inclusion of what appears to the modern eye to be descriptions of fictitious animals, McCarthy noted that these texts were intended to be a serious reference work when they were compiled.
He stated, “They could very easily have both accurate and inaccurate information.” Except for the fact that we now know from modern science what species actually (exist) and what is credible or not, we have no ability to differentiate between those.
Because these early descriptions were not entirely accurate, it’s possible that the descriptions of “hafgufa” and similar creatures were relegated to the realm of fantasy and folklore over time. McCarthy cites a 1658 drawing of a massive sea monster with two water-spitting orifices on its head. According to McCarthy, the drawing may simply be “someone’s misinterpretation of a blowhole,” despite the fact that it appears to be the stuff of fiction.