Now that it's getting light a bit earlier in the mornings when the sun pierces through the woods to wake me, a little exciting frisson heralds spring's traditional fecundity...even though I worry the trees are going to be barren, and fear that this winter's balmy temperatures portend an unbearably hot summer. But for now, just the glimmer of the early rays slanting across the room and making a halo on the wall across from my pillow reminds me of springs in the past, when prospects were so much more congenial, and even innocent. Or perhaps, just happily ignorant.
Then the memory intruded in a rush, that I once had to routinely clean webs from the windowframes and corners of the ceilings every week...and now I never need to.
Also the pesky hated swarms of pantry moths that sneak in on the birds' food and peanuts have all but vanished. I realized, kind of shocked, that I know small children who have no idea what a daddy-long-legs is - they have never seen a single one! And then, there was a recent comment on a post here on the blog, mentioning that years ago, cars used to be plastered with bugs in the summer...but no longer. I do remember the chore of scraping multitudes of dried squashed yellow splats off the windshield and grill of the car. Those days are long gone.
Independent, all the way back in 2003. Scientists were already concerned that insect eating birds were dying off because the source of their food was dwindling away, and had even constructed a "splatometer" to attach to the hood of cars, to measure a baseline and then periodically track the trends. I will have to get in touch with them and the other scientists I found later, to see what the latest evidence has revealed.
"Experts believe falling insect numbers explain a decline in some bird species"
"Do you remember? Windscreens were covered once, at the end of a car trip in high summer, with an insect massacre: splattered moths and squashed flies and wasps and gnats and God knows what. But in recent years more and more drivers seem to be finding their windscreens clear."
"The sperm whale is a natural submarine, a miracle of evolutionary engineering. It is actually able to change the physical shape of its body to accomplish its dives.
At the surface, it will breathe deeply, like an athlete getting ready for an event. It exchanges all the carbon dioxide in its body for oxygen, storing it in its muscles."
"Humans do this to a certain extent, but the whales’ muscles are far more efficient at the process, as demonstrated by their almost black colour, an indication of how supercharged they are with myoglobin, which binds the oxygen to their blood."
"As it prepares to dive, the sperm whale undergoes one of nature’s most amazing transformations. Its characteristically square head is in fact an extended nose. Fifteen feet long from nostril to shoulder, it contains a massive reservoir of spermaceti oil.
This waxy oil has remarkable bio-acoustical properties. It is used to amplify the sonar clicks that echo along the animal’s head and out into the ocean."
"The result is the loudest noise created by any animal — 230 decibels, as loud as a jet engine and powerful enough to be heard six miles away.
As the whale dives, its massive nose, which is plump and bulbous when at the surface, is squeezed into a narrow, hydrodynamic wedge shape — the better to allow the animal’s plunge into the abyss.
The whale then shuts down every organ in its body, except heart and brain, in order to conserve energy and oxygen."
"Its lungs collapse as the animal’s ribs close in on bony hinges, lubricated by special mucus. If they did not, the increased pressure below would snap its ribcage.
Any air left in its body is confined to its nasal passages, where it is needed to generate the sonar clicks the animal uses to hunt. Its flippers fit into its sides like an aircraft’s undercarriage. Everything is streamlined.
Finally, the whale uses the rippling muscles in its tail to jack-knife downwards with an astonishing power.
A sperm whale can dive down for more than a mile, to depths which would crush a human being’s internal organs at a pressure of 500lb per square inch."
"In just five minutes, it can reach a depth of 500 metres, the limit at which a human diver can work.
Soon it will far exceed that, reaching 1,000m — its favoured hunting ground. We do not know exactly how the whale’s body resists such pressure. But it must be comfortable down there, since it can spend two hours underwater.
In the inky darkness, the whale hunts by using its sonar as a sweeping scan, in search of its favourite food: squid.
For centuries man has hunted the sperm whale, principally for that precious oil in its pugnacious head. Before the discovery of mineral oil, sperm whale oil burned in street lights and oil lamps. It lubricated the machines of the Industrial Revolution."
"It was even used in the NASA space missions as lubrication for space probes, since it does not freeze in sub-zero temperatures.
In 200 years we managed to reduce their population from two million to 360,000.
Luckily, most of the world no longer hunts these beautiful creatures. But now, tragically, there are new dangers to their wellbeing.
By virtue of its position at the top of the marine food chain, the pollution we dump in the sea affects sperm whales more than any other creature."
"One of the greatest problems faced by any marine species is the sheer amount of plastic in the ocean, especially plastic bags, as has been highlighted by the Daily Mail’s campaign against the profligate use of them.
...a minke whale recently stranded itself on the French coast. Its stomach was clogged with 800kg of plastic, including British supermarket bags.
One problem for the sperm whale is, ironically, its awesome success. It inhabits every ocean and almost every sea, from the vast Pacific to the enclosed Mediterranean. This is because it has evolved to find the perfect feeding niche, albeit a mile below the surface of the ocean."
"It is a staggering fact that sperm whales eat more squid and fish each year — 100 million tons, than the 70 million tons we humans catch and consume per annum.
The sperm whale has to eat so much to fuel its huge brain, which is highly expensive, in calorific terms, to run.
Given the size of their brains, sperm whale society is remarkably complex. Like the African elephant, it is matriarchal. So much so that females which are unrelated genetically will ‘baby-sit’ each other’s calves when they dive to feed."
"The whales also travel almost inconceivable distances. Every year, male sperm whales migrate towards the poles, returning toward the equator to breed. One male may travel more than 1,000km a month.
They communicate in a complex system of Morse-code-like clicks, and each ‘clan’ has a different dialect, in the way a Yorkshire accent differs from a Devon one.
Individual animals may be miles apart but they are always in intimate contact, through their extraordinary sense of hearing.
Such supreme adaptability means that sperm whales live to great ages, at least 100 years old. Bowhead whales, their cousins, live to even greater ages — up to 300 years and perhaps even older, making them the planet’s longest living mammal."
"In another recent and tragic case, a group of seven sperm whales stranded themselves on a Mediterranean beach. They had been driven into shallow waters, possibly by military sonar exercises. There they were unable to feed on squid. And since whales get their liquid from their food, they began to dehydrate.
Then, their starving bodies began to break down fat — to deadly effect. The pollutants they’d absorbed from the ocean and had been deposited in their fat were released."
"They included heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium, and organochlorines like PCBs and DDTs, even fire-retardants used on modern furnishings.
In effect, the whales were poisoning themselves. Fatally weakened, they stranded themselves together on the shore, demonstrating the unswerving loyalty to each other for which their species is renowned.
And when their carcases were dissected, it came as no surprise to discover an unusual amount of plastic, including the dreaded plastic bags, in their stomachs."
It's discouraging to contemplate just how much plastic we use and discard, especially plastic packaging that is completely unnecessary, and containers for things like make-up, which is also unnecessary. Oh well, I suppose soon enough, hardly anybody will have money to buy wasteful things, and production will cease. That's it for today - except this brief video. If you aren't weeping by the end then you might want to check with a cardiologist in case your heart has turned to stone.
Photo credits here, here, here, here, and here, and here and here and here