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From the NS archive: Right whales

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16.09.2020

Early in the last year of the First World War, the New Statesman published this piece by the Scottish naturalist John Arthur Thomson. His thoroughgoing appreciation of one of the great whales stood in contrast to the magazine’s core fare – politics, literature and current affairs. Although his article is scrupulous in its biological description of the right whale, Thomson’s appreciation of it as an evolutionary wonder is palpable. “It is a long-lived, dumb, peace-loving creature – too gentle to survive man's frightfulness for long.” He does not say so explicitly, but man’s frightfulness could be found everywhere from the trenches in Flanders to the whaling fleets of the world’s oceans.

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Every age has had its giants; those of today are the whales. For the sperm whale and the right whales may be 50 feet long, and there are others even larger. The two examples just mentioned suggest the familiar division of the mammalian order Cetacea into the toothed whales with functional teeth and the baleen whales with whalebone – two groups which, if they had a common ancestry at all, must have diverged very long ago, for they are now separated by a multitude of structural differences. Among the whalebone whales there are two (or perhaps three) called “right” simply because they are the right sort for whalers to pursue, being more valuable, as regards baleen and blubber, than the finbacks and humpbacks and other kinds which also bear these precious products, but in less degree. The recent publication of an admirable monograph, Glover M Allen’s Whalebone Whales of New England (Boston, 1916), has prompted us to attempt an appreciation of the right whales, of which the black North Atlantic or Biscay whale, Balcenaglacialis, is now the leading representative.

First of all, what an extraordinary bundle of adaptations is a whale! Think of the torpedo-like shape, suited for cleaving the water; the shiny, frictionless, almost naked skin; the horizontally flattened tailflukes, which serve as propellers; the transformation of the fore-limbs into paddle-like flippers, which are moved en bloc and are mainly used in balancing; the thick layer of blubber (an exaggeration of the subcutaneous fat found in most mammals), which retains the warmth of the body, compensating for the almost entire absence of hair, and also helps to make the whale's great bulk more buoyant, and by its elasticity to resist the great pressure involved in deep diving; the shortening of the neck and the welding of the vertebrae of that region; the meticulous reduction of friction, illustrated in the absence of external ears; the dorsal position of the valved, automatically closing blowhole or nostril (single in the adult toothed whales, strangely remaining in the primitive double condition in the more specialised baleen whales); the sponginess of most of the bones, making for buoyancy; the remarkable networks of blood-vessels which probably help respiration during the prolonged submersion; the relatively huge chest-cavity and the spacious (though simple) lungs, which are hydrostatic as well as breathing organs; the usual reduction of the offspring to one at a time; and the........

© New Statesman


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