Humble lichens have been credited as sentinels of air quality.

Lichens are the mosaics of fungi that speckle tree bark and rocks at the ocean. In those precarious perches, lichens absorb their food from the fog the wind and the rain. With no roots but with very absorbent tissue, but no roots lichens are exquisitely vulnerable to gases released from any pollutants carried by the wind and rain. It is this sensitivity that makes lichens powerful sentinels of forest health.

Pollution builds up inside lichen tissues in proportion to its concentration in the wider environment. Anything poisoning lichens also accumulating more broadly in their environment.

Despite their plant-like form, lichens are not plants often called tiny ecosystems, they are actually compound organisms made up of two, or even three, very different partners, none of which is a plant. The dominant partner in a lichen symbiosis is a fungus, a colony of algae, supplying food by photosynthesis. Separated from its partners, the fungus itself would be a shapeless glob.

lichens aghulas

Lichens to dye for

An arsenal of nearly 600 chemicals unique to lichens helps them survive in marginal environments and ward off attacks by bacteria, other fungi and grazing herbivores. Many lichen species contain bitter compounds that may discourage feeding by invertebrates The pigments, toxins and antibiotics have made lichens very useful to people in an array of cultures as a source of dyes and medicines.

lichen Navajo clothThe warm brown rugs made by Navajo Indians. come from boiling the vagrant lichen, Xanthoparmelia chlorochroa. Known as a vagrant lichen because it grows loose on the ground, "ground lichen" is free to wander on the wind. Before weaving a rug or blanket, members of the Ramah Navajo Weavers Association raise and shear their own sheep, spin the yarns, and dye them with vegetal dyes "ground lichen" shown loose in the basket.

The lichens once used to dye Scottish Harris Tweed contain substances that gave the fabric an earthy aroma and reputedly made it moth repellent.

lichen dye groupShrubby grey lichens scraped off coastal rocks and soaked in ammonia-rich stale urine, yielded some of the famous royal purple dyes of antiquity.

The most widely used dye lichen among Native Americans was the eye-catching wolf lichen, Letharia vulpine. A tribe in Alaska traded coastal commodities such as fish oil for wolf lichen from the inland to colour their prized dancing blankets. Though famed as a wolf poison, the wolf lichen often becomes one of the prized medicines in tribal pharmacies. Medicinal tea was made from it or used externally to treat skin problems. The lichen substance usnic acid has been used in some European antibiotic creams.

lichens crustose-lichens-sylvia-sharnoffDesigner rocks

As if painted by a mad hand, a tombstone encrusted with lichens.

The brightly coloured crustose lichens used as medicines such as Pleopsidium oxytonum translates literally as “lizard semen”- alluding the push-ups that lizards do during courtship displays.


lichen_main science newsAlmost any stable surface makes suitable turf for lichens. Under favourable conditions, lichens will find a home on the stained-glass windows of cathedrals, even on the backs of Galapagos tortoises!

Growing imperceptibly for centuries - even millennia- some lichens are amongst the world’s oldest living things; this makes them useful to scientists for dating archaeological artefacts and tracking geological events such as the retreat of glaciers.

There are rich lichen floras in the intertidal zone in many places, and they are accompanied by a correspondingly complex set of invertebrates.

lichens snailLichens are prominent role players in transforming landscapes by slowly chipping away and dissolving rock into soil, adding organic matter when they die. In the Negev Desert, in Israel, two species of snails that eat lichens growing under the surface of limestone rocks ("endolithic lichens") were discovered to be converting rock to soil at the amazing rate of 0.7 to 1.1 metric tonnes per hectare per year! lichens desert

The action was due to the fact that the snails pass significant amounts of rock through their digestive tracts in the process of consuming the lichen. In addition, the snails were taking nitrogen from the lichens and leaving it behind in the new soil; this was found to be a principal component of the nitrogen cycle of this desert.

Environmental watchdogs

lichen -wolf moss Letharia vulpineFar from the rain-drenched forests of the Pacific Northwest, on the grey streets of 1860s Paris, a botanist named William Nylander was one of the first scientists to notice a peculiar pattern. More lichen species grew in the oasis of the Luxembourg Garden than elsewhere in the city. The park was less polluted than the rest of Paris.

Nylander made the connection: Better air quality meant higher lichen diversity. Protect them and everything else is safe.

Because of their extreme sensitivity, lichens are useful indicators of air quality. Thriving in pristine environments lichens are fast disappearing in regions of air pollution and habitat disturbance. Lichens act like sponges, taking up pollutants that come their way. By analysing lichens chemically, scientists can tell what’s in the air.


After winter rain, leafless forest trees come alive with lichens, including oakmoss lichen, an important ingredient in many fine perfumes. Virtually dormant when dry, lichens become bright, plump and metabolically active when damp.

Everything notwithstanding, lichens will keep growing and changing in step with the changing planet. They’ll breathe in the mountain air, soak up water as it drips down the trees and swell out from the mist rolling in from the sea.

Lichens will forever stand as a beacon of the air we breathe.


Science News

National Geographic

Various online


The East London aquarium is an interesting little aquarium with daily fish feeding, fun and informative thanks to a number of unique displays and features including a whale-watching deck, a breeding colony of African penguins and an exciting seal shows.

Penguins at the east London Aquarium

The aquarium has some beautiful large fish tank displays that feature most of the local fish population. The lighting of these tanks add to the experience of visiting this small but well planned and maintained establishment.

East London aquarium Tanks

All around this Aquarium is boards with well researched information about South African marine life.

Information Boards East London aquarium

There is a colony of African penguins, sea-turtles, seals, a variety of marine fish and seabirds. Unique to this Eastern Cape aquarium is the display housing three Cape pygmy clawed lobsters.


This aquarium also serves as a haven for injured, oiled and distressed marine creatures washed up on East London’s beaches, which total a few hundred seabirds, turtles and dolphins that are treated, rehabilitated and released every year.

Oil birds East London aquarium

The Southern Right whales migrate annually down the coast of South Africa to their arctic feeding grounds and come close inshore at East London and with this in the mind the aquarium built an eleven meter high platform that sits right above the surf and provides an excellent opportunity to watch these magnificent animals breaching in the bay. This is build just above the pool where a couple of seals are staying.

Cape Fur Seals - East London

The East London Aquarium is South Africa’s oldest aquarium, and opened it’s doors in 1931, a must-see for visitors to this charming coastal city, now called Buffalo City in the Eastern Cape.

The Aquarium is open daily from 09:00 in the morning till 17:00 in the afternoon The Seals show and Penguin feeding run daily at 11:30 in the morning and 15:30 in the afternoon Entrance fee is R28 for adults, R17 for children (3 to 18 years) R11 per child in school group and R17 for pensioners.


Napier, the quaint little village on the Cape Whale coast

One cannot pass through the quaint little town of Napier in the Overberg without synchronising your time with the giant sundial, generally accepted to be the largest sundial as well as the only vertical one in South Africa. It stands as beacon next to one of the municipal offices.

It was when he read an article written by CJ Langenhoven on sundials that had been reprinted in Die Burger in 1936, that Danie Du Toit’s interest was piqued. This sparked in him a special desire to create his own sundial.

Langenhoven 1926 sundail

CJ Langehoven has drawn up plans for a sundial as far back as in 1926. This replica of his design was erected on his farm Arbeidsgenot in the Oudtshoorn Municipality

Since Danie Du Toit's early years, the observations of the stars sparked an interest in everything celestial. He developed a sharp sense of interpreting the movements of the sun and the shadows it cast and researching the stars. It was this ability, that has not faded with the time, that made him noticed that one pillar at the Napier station where he was then employed was longer in winter.

Danie also noticed that the shadow fell at the same place at four times a year. This meticulous observation and the article written by Langenhoven was all the inspiration he needed to build his own sundial.

Napier Sundail Napier's Iconic Sundial

Cecil Fick was the town clerk of the Napier Municipality in 1965. With foresight and a love for the town, he made a decision to help to establish an iconic landmark for this little village in the Overberg. Danie Du Toit could build his sundial. Jan Engel, a local craftsman, was assigned to the plastering job and the municipality supplied all the materials.

By studying the midday shadows, Danie could establish north and south without a compass. He then built an east to west line. When the ‘gnomon’ – the metal rod- was in position, he started making marks; one for every two minutes.

It took him 18 months just to complete the markings for each minute, based solely on his observations of the shadow on the dial. Using his table, which explains the corrections between the sundial’s time and standard time, the time of day can still be determined within an accuracy of 30 seconds!

When Danie Du Toit died in 1974, this man with no training in his field, left this delightful little village a legacy that became a lasting monument to his ingenuity.

Credits: SJ Du Toit & Napier Municipality & various websites

Friday, 01 March 2019 09:47

A 60-second guide to humpback whales

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The basics of feeding and breaching behaviour explained

Why do humpbacks breach?

Both male and female humpback whales of all ages breach but only the humpback males sing. Although we do not know why they do it, the frequency, style and function may differ with season and location.

Breaching costs a lot of energy and calves appear to do it the most. Could it be that since they don’t have to search for food but feed on the very rich milk (45–60 percent fat) for at least 10 months, the nursing youngsters can play more don’t need to worry about wasting energy. Breaching could thus be a form of play that helps them to develop skills to use in later life.

Among adults, breaching is far more common in social species, such as humpbacks, that gather at their breeding grounds. This suggests that it plays a role in communication. For example, North Pacific humpbacks breach most in their southern mating areas and less frequently in their northern feeding areas. Regardless of where the behaviour occurs, it is often associated with whales joining or separating from a particular group. Another function of breaching could be to dislodge barnacles or parasites that from on the skin.

The region between the dorsal fin and fluke (tail) houses a phenomenally powerful muscle. This means that the whale is capable of breaching from just below the surface, and doesn’t need to dive deep beforehand to get a ‘running start’. (Unlike sharks)

Humpback Whale rorqual Photo: Audun Rikarsen

How do humpbacks feed?

It is thought that humpbacks find prey use their tubercles - a prominent series of bumps on the head. Each bump has a sensory hair, and it is possible that the whale uses these ‘whiskers’ to judge prey density in the water during bouts of feeding. Humpback whales are filter feeders. The upper jaw contains up to 400 baleen plates, which strain out the water to leave the food – often krill or schooling fish. The throat opening is merely the size of a football, so only small prey can be consumed. Humpbacks have 14–35 grooves, known as ventral pleats, that extend back to the navel. These allow the throat to expand massively as sea water rushes in during feeding.

Humpback Whale lobtail Photo: Audun Rikarsen

What is lob-tailing?

It is the action performed when slapping the tail hard against the water, sometimes several times in succession and may be social or defensive behaviour. The action has been seen in response to boats approaching too closely.

Have you noticed this behaviour?

A humpback whale smashes its wing-like pectoral fins against the water’s surface, often together, while the whale is lying on its back. They are largely white on the underside and a third of the animal’s total body length.

Source: WDC


edible beer topsA brewery created by fishermen, surfers and lovers of the sea have come up with a genius solution to end plastic 6-pack rings ending up in the ocean.

Their solution? Edible rings. (For the fish, of course)


It is estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. (that's insane.) These brilliant thinkers decided they would help put an end to this by creating edible rings instead of plastic, the fish can therefore eat them instead of getting stuck in them.

This material is made entirely of barley and wheat remains from the brewing process, all of which is 100 percent biodegradable and safe for fish, turtles, birds and other marine life to eat, unlike the plastic ring-holders that are now killing them by the millions.

Article originally appeared in Niume
Friday, 01 March 2019 09:39

Hitching a ride on a dolphin and a whale

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Some species of barnacles and lice have figured out what a rewarding choice of "real estate" the living bodies of dolphins and whales can be. They live their lives attached to the bodies of dolphins, whales and other marine species, Some of these “hitchhikers” exclusively attach to certain parts of marine mammals, creating their own microhabitats right on their unsuspecting hosts. The barnacles are filtering organisms, trapping food particles in water as the bits of food flow by.

Barnacles from the species Xenobalanus globicipitis, hang from the underside of a dolphin fin Barnacles from the species Xenobalanus globicipitis, hang from the underside of a dolphin fin

Poetic bottom line: from Francisco Javier Aznar, senior author of the study, published in the journal PLOS ONE.

"Some years ago, a colleague wrote rather poetically that riding a dolphin would be the dream for a barnacle for two reasons,"

First, the movement of water the dolphin produces around it during swimming is rather predictable and, therefore, can advantageously be used by barnacles..

Second, no predator can chase a fast dolphin to feed on their barnacles!"


Oom Joon se parskuipe vandag

Klein biekie wyn..

“Ek het in laat 50' s nog gesien hoe word druiwe eers met ou handpars wat op Bo winkel se stoep gestaan het fyn gemaal. Dan word sap en doppe afgedra in sink emmers na die ou parskuip en daarin gegooi en vir week laat gis. Dan is dit onder uitgetap en in vate in my Oupa Stoffel se kelder in vate gegooi. Mens na so twee maande dan word daai suur mos gedrink. My Oupa het vreeslik jig in sy hande gehad. Dan kom dr van Napier. Gee hom inspuiting. More is hande reg. More aand dan vat hy maar weer suur mos. Ja, ou Baarskeerdersbos. Lankal nie meer wat dit was nie.

Ek weet nog presies waar het watse vrugte bome gestaan. Waar die wingerd was. Die dam waar hulle die vate laat uitswel het.( laas gesien dam is nog effe daar). Oupa Stoffel se lemoenboom bos. Oom Joon se suurlemoen bome, die wat jy soos lemoen kon afskil.

Vrolike weduwees van Baardskeerdersbos- Landbouweekblad voorblad Vrolike weduwees van Baardskeerdersbos- Landbouweekblad voorblad

Johannes Pampoentjie en die petrol spook

Ook dat daar een middag 'n Chev of Ford kar by Ant Dienie se Bo Winkel uitgebrand het. Drie jong mans het petrol met die handpomp met groot glase in trekker se tenk op agter sitplek van kar ingepomp. Een het vuurhoutjie getrek vir siggaret en petrolgas wat buite kar en in kar was het ontplof. Snaaks die kar het net binne uitgebrand. Ek nie seker meer nie maar ek dink een was Johannes Pampoentjie. Selfs petrol in tenk binne het nie ontplof nie. My pa het ( ek was saam ) een of twee van mans Napier dr toe gery met sy twee ton Bedford lorrietjie want een se bene en ander se arms was gebrand. Ons het met sink emmers uit water sloot die brand in kar dood gekry. Ons het oorkant die winkel in huis met blou dak vandag gebly. My ma het poskantoor gehad voor Oom Pietertjie se vrou.. Figuurlik gesproke sal ek my siel verkoop vir stuk varkbloed met custard. Ai ja was goeie dae.

Oom Joon se kelder

So was daar een Sat nag by Oom Joon se kelder ( syne was op hoek van winkel na water sloot se kant toe ingebreek en mos wyn uitgetap. Eers kom polisie man van Elim ( die polisiestasie daar is vervalle gebou ). Nee se hy speurder moet van Bredasdorp kom. Hy kom later middag nogal met sy bloedhond daar aan. Ek het Sat oggend daar in sloot naby die wasboom em tafel in uitkeer sloot gespeel. Gaan die speurder mos en maak my spore in sloot met twee houtkissies toe. Mens ek hardloop huis toe en gaan kruip onder bed weg. My pa het my kom soek toe se ek speurder het my spore in water sloot toegemaak. Kyk hier daai tyd was jy k bang vir poliesman wat nog van speurder met bloedhond. Ja goeie tye gewees.

Dit-is-oupa-stoffeljie-jonas-se-huis- Oupa Stoffeltjie Jonas se huis

Witblits en wyn

Baardskeerdersbos het tot soveel as nege wynkelders gehad met vyf stook ketels. Parstyd en stooktyd was n belangrik bedrywigheid en n hoogtepunt vir elke Bbosser. Tot vandag is Witblits n gewilde drankie op die dorp. Enige denkbare kruie was bygevoeg soos bv. Anys, boegoe, naeltjies, lemoenskille, perskes en rooihoutjie wortels. Hanepoot en Chenin Blanc druiwe was gebruik. Vandag sien jy nog oral ou murasies van kuipe. Op Boesmansrivier by Gerhardt De Wet het n Kelder mooi behoue gebly. Dit was die Slanghoekkelder. Ja as al die glassies vol Witblits was, wie wil dan water he.

Baardskeerdersbos kerk

Ant Luitjie se kerkklok

Die kerkklok het sy eie storie. Baardekeerdersbos se NG –gemmente was eers deel van Stanford, maar het n behoefte gehad aan in eie gemeente. ? Sekere tant Luitjie het toe n sturk van haar grod geskenk sodat daar n kerk vir die inwoners van Bbos gebou kon word. So gemaak en in 1922 staan daar n splinernuwe kerk. Dit het nie lank geneem voor die jongklomp besluit het dat die kerk n ideale plek sou wees vir volkspele.

Tant Luitjie was vreeslik ontsteld oor hiedie “losbandigheid”. Sy voorspel toe vervloekend dat die mure van die kerk gaan inval, nes die Bybelse Jericho van ouds. Na tant Luidjie se heengaan het dit op n stadium vreeslik gereën en weliswaar tuimel die kerk se dak en mure inmekaar… kompleet soft ant Luitjie se voorspelling sou waar word! Die Bbossers moes toe die kerk herbou.

Een nag, om middernag, begin die kerkklok toe nou lui… mense het in hul nagkebaaie uitgestorm en die skuldige begin soek, maar niemand kon iets sien of kry nie. Almal het geglo dis tant Luitjie wat nie tot ruste kon kom nie. Die klok se middernagtelike geluiery het vir baie lank aangehou en die “spokery” het groot marakkas op Bbos veroorsaak. Die lewens wat die BeeBossrs gelei het, het skielik baie skoner geraak.

Rooi Laventel en Versterkdrupples was in elke huis te vind. Perdehoewe is bokant die voordeure vasgekap en die meeste van die witbltsketel was vir eers weggesit- skielik was die kerkie elke Sondag stampvol en die kollektes oordadig en mildelk! En toè…hou dit skielik op. Die klok was stil.

Original "Ant Luitjie se kerkklok" article: Lizette Payne

Die Beebossers het die skielike stilte glad nie vertrou nie en bang gewag vir wat volgende dalk gaan gebeur. Bang het naderhand verander in versigtig en mettertyd was versigtig by die agterdeur uit. BBos het weer sy normale gang gegaan. En alles was rustig. Die witblitsketels is uitgehaal uit die wegsteekplekkeen het werk gerky, die goewerment se man het weer op die wegsteekketels toegeslaan en die jongmense was weer net so “losbandig” as wat tant Luitjie beweer het. Alaml was maar net te dankbaar dat tant Luitjie uiteindelik rus en vrede gevind het.

Die rede vir die skielike middernagtelike stilte was natuurlik dat die kwajong-klokluiers ouer geraak en BBos verlaat het om op ander plekke te gaan werk. Baie jare later ontmoet die twee middernagtelike klokluiers- toeal albei afgtrede mane- mekaar toevallig een dag op Bbos en hulle raak aan die kuier. Laat die nag besluit hulle om vir oulaas weer die klok te loop lui. Swaar gekwes van die kuiery is die twee ou manne kerkklok toe, maar nog voor hulle nog behoorlik by die klok is, begin die klok vanself te lui..! Heeltemal binne-in n ander bloedgroep geskrik het die ou manne die stukke ingesit en gehol..want die kolk het die eers n tou gehad nie!

The church on Baardskeerdersbos has since been declared a National Monument.


Some of the bowhead whales in the icy waters off of Alaska today are over 200 years old

Drwaing of a Bowhead Whale Drawing of a Bowhead Whale

In Alaska’s North Slope, the population of bowhead whales seems to be recovering. But that’s really not the coolest part of this Alaska story. That’s right, some of the bowhead whales in the icy waters today are over 200 years old. Alaska Dispatch writes:

"Bowheads seem to be recovering from the harvest of Yankee commercial whaling from 1848 to 1915, which wiped out all but 1,000 or so animals. Because the creatures can live longer than 200 years — a fact George discovered when he found an old stone harpoon point in a whale — some of the bowheads alive today may have themselves dodged the barbed steel points of the Yankee whalers"

Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick in 1851, after a brief stint on a whaling ship. Summary:

"Finally, driven to desperation at twenty-one, Melville committed to a whaling voyage of indefinite destination and scale on board a ship called the Acushnet. This journey took him around the continent of South America, across the Pacific Ocean, and to the South Seas, where he abandoned ship with a fellow sailor in the summer of 1842, eighteen months after setting out from New York. The two men found themselves in the Marquesas Islands, where they accidentally wandered into the company of a tribe of cannibals. Lamed with a bad leg, Melville became separated from his companion and spent a month alone in the company of the natives. This experience later formed the core of his first novel, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, published in 1846. An indeterminate mixture of fact and fiction, Melville’s fanciful travel narrative remained the most popular and successful of his works during his lifetime."

Thirty four years ago, scientists counted 1,200 whales. Today there are about 14,000 of the mammals out there. Bowhead whales get their name from their heads, says NOAA

The bowhead whale has a massive bow-shaped skull that is over 16.5 feet (5 m) long and about 30-40% of their total body length. This large skull allows the bowhead whale to break through thick ice with its head. The bowhead whale also has a 17-19 inch (43-50 cm) thick blubber layer, thicker than any other whale’s blubber. None of the whales in Alaska, as far as we know, are white.

Bowhead whales see huge population rebound off Alaska's North Slope

Bowhead Whales are doing a remarkable recovery Bowhead Whales are doing a remarkable recovery

Bowhead whales counted from a sea-ice perch north of Barrow are “doing beautifully,” according to Craig George with the North Slope Borough. Since 1978, George has counted bowhead whales for an eight-week stretch each year from mid-April until June. The whales, which spend their lives in arctic waters, migrate past Point Barrow during that time. Since George and his colleagues began recording whale numbers 34 years ago, their counts have increased from 1,200 animals in 1978 to 3,400 in 2011. From those numbers of whales seen, George estimates there are now 14,000 to 15,000 animals.

“It’s pretty dramatic how it’s changed,” George said.

Bowheads seem to be recovering from the harvest of Yankee commercial whaling from 1848 to 1915, which wiped out all but 1,000 or so animals. Because the creatures can live longer than 200 years — a fact George discovered when he found an old stone harpoon point in a whale — some of the bowheads alive today may have themselves dodged the barbed steel points of the Yankee whalers.

That was just one nugget of northern news presented at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, a five-day gathering of more than 20,000 scientists held in early December 2012 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. A few more:

Descending permafrost

Permafrost researcher Nikolay Shiklomanov has for 18 years shoved pointy steel probes into the ground around Barrow to determine how much of the ground thaws by the end of each summer. When he hits something hard, he knows he has reached permafrost, ground that remains frozen all year. The depth his probe penetrates at the end of summer is called the “active layer.” It represents how much soil thaws each year; beneath it is permafrost.

Though he knew air temperatures were getting warmer in Barrow, the George Washington University scientist noticed the thickness of the active layer had not changed much in 18 years of probing. That led him to look at the readings of differential global positioning systems receivers that showed him the precise elevations of his plots since 2003. He saw dramatic sinking and extrapolated. His conclusion: The ground surface of today is one foot lower than it was in 1990.

“The active layer appeared to be stable, but the permafrost table was going down,” Shiklomanov said. He added that most of Barrow is probably a foot farther from the stars than it was 20 years ago due to thawing permafrost.

Scorched North Slope

When a wildfire on the North Slope burned an area larger than Cape Cod in 2007, researchers wondered if it was the sign of a new era in which northern tundra, fueled by warmer air temperatures, burned like the boreal forest down south.

This summer, Ben Jones and other scientists targeted certain areas of northern tundra and found two other immense burn scars on the North Slope. Jones, of the U.S. Geological Survey Alaska Science Center, went out to northwestern Alaska to check out what looked like old burned areas in satellite images.

He found charcoal in both areas, which had dense shrubbery. He mapped out the apparent boundaries of the Ketik River Fire in far northwest Alaska and found it was even larger than the Anaktuvik River Fire in 2007. Dating of the charcoal at the site indicates the Ketik River Fire burned sometime between 1810 and 1920. He also mapped a fire scar from a smaller-but-still-significant 123,000-acre fire that burned around the Meade River sometime between 1880 and 1920.

Ned Rozell is a science writer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute.


The skeleton shapes are fossils, some of at least 40 dead whales washed ashore en masse between 6 and 9 million years ago on a beach that is now slightly inland from Northern Chille Coastline. The skeleton shapes are fossils, some of at least 40 dead whales washed ashore en masse between 6 and 9 million years ago on a beach that is now slightly inland from Nnorthern Chile's coastline.

No, it's not a sand sculpture competition. The skeleton shapes are fossils, some of at least 40 dead whales washed ashore en masse between 6 and 9 million years ago on a beach that is now slightly inland from northern Chile's coastline. They provide the earliest known example in the fossil record of mass strandings of marine mammals.

The area has the greatest density of extinct marine mammals in the world, says Nicholas Pyenson of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, who led the research. Unfortunately, much of the site now sits under the northbound lane of the Pan-American Highway.

Discovered in 2010 during excavations for the road, which links Alaska and Argentina, the fossil haul includes over 40 large baleen whales, an extinct species of sperm whale and an extinct walrus-like whale. Also found at the Cerro Ballena site – Spanish for "whale hill" – were skeletons of billfishes, seals and aquatic sloths.

Whale graveyard- researchers doing fieldwork. Whale graveyard- researchers doing fieldwork.

Researchers recorded the skeletons in situ using 3D photography (pictured above) before moving them to Chilean museums.

Pyenson and his colleagues think that the whales died at sea after consuming food contaminated with toxins from algal blooms and their bodies floated onto what was then a beach. So-called "red tides", caused by algal blooms, are also to blame for some modern mass whale strandings, says Pyenson.

There were no large land scavengers in South America at the time, so the bodies lay unmolested until sand buried them. The skeletons were found on four separate levels, suggesting this story was repeated at least four times.

Much of the site is now paved over, but the researchers are confident that the area still conceals hundreds more fossils. The University of Chile in Santiago aims to open a research station near the Cerro Ballena site to work with what's left.[youtube][/youtube]

Skeleton of a fossil whale Skeleton of a fossil whale

Repeated mass strandings of Miocene marine mammals from Atacama Region of Chile point to sudden death at sea

Marine mammal mass strandings have occurred for millions of years, but their origins defy singular explanations. Beyond human causes, mass strandings have been attributed to herding behaviour, large-scale oceanographic fronts and harmful algal blooms (HABs). Because algal toxins cause organ failure in marine mammals, HABs are the most common mass stranding agent with broad geographical and widespread taxonomic impact. Toxin-mediated mortalities in marine food webs have the potential to occur over geological timescales, but direct evidence for their antiquity has been lacking. Here, we describe an unusually dense accumulation of fossil marine vertebrates from Cerro Ballena, a Late Miocene locality in Atacama Region of Chile, preserving over 40 skeletons of rorqual whales, sperm whales, seals, aquatic sloths, walrus-whales and predatory bony fish.

Much of the site now sits under the northbound lane of the Pan-American Highway. Much of the site now sits under the northbound lane of the Pan-American Highway.

Marine mammal skeletons are distributed in four discrete horizons at the site, representing a recurring accumulation mechanism. Taphonomic analysis points to strong spatial focusing with a rapid death mechanism at sea, before being buried on a barrier-protected supratidal flat. In modern settings, HABs are the only known natural cause for such repeated, multispecies accumulations. This proposed agent suggests that upwelling zones elsewhere in the world should preserve fossil marine vertebrate accumulations in similar modes and densities.

Narwhals are sometimes referred to as the unicorns of the sea because of the long, pointed horns that extend from their heads. Narwhals are sometimes referred to as the unicorns of the sea because of the long, pointed horns that extend from their heads.

The nerve-filled appendage helps the animals’ sense temperature and perhaps find prey and mates

Narwhals are sometimes referred to as the unicorns of the sea because of the long, pointed horns that extend from their heads. Male narwhals' tusks can grow up to nine feet long,. Male narwhals' tusks can grow up to nine feet long. They are actually modified teeth that protrude out from the corner of their mouth, rather than forehead-centred horns.

Scientists do not know what purpose the narwhal's tusk serves, exactly. They've speculated that it might be used for skewering enemy animals or for breaking through the icy Arctic waters where the animals live. One team hypothesized that the tusk serves as a sort of sensory organ, Wired describes, and recently decided to investigate that idea.

To put their hunch to the test, the researchers devised a "tusk jacket," Drake writes—a sort of plastic hoodie that fit comfortably over the narwhals' tusks but excluded the outside environment. The team changed the concentration of salt in the water that filled the tusk jacket, which acts as a proxy for temperature (more ice equals colder water with more salt, while less ice means warmer water with less salt). Wired:

He found that narwhal heart rates rose in response to high salt concentrations, presumably because these concentrations normally suggest that the sea is freezing and entrapment is possible. The animals’ heart rates dropped when the tusks were washed with fresh water, suggesting they could detect this change.

The team only tested the tusks for a response to salt but think the whales might also use their tusks for seeking out prey or finding mates. Why, what would you do with an extra long, sensitive tooth?

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