Nav: Home

Righty blue whales sometimes act like lefties, study finds

November 20, 2017

Blue whales are the largest animals in the world, with bodies that can weigh as much as 25 elephants and extend over the length of a basketball court. To support their hulking bodies, the whale use various acrobatic maneuvers to scoop up many individually tiny prey, filtering the water back out through massive baleen plates. In most cases, the whales roll to the right as they capture their prey, just as most people are right-handed. But, researchers reporting in Current Biology on November 20 now show that the whales shift directions and roll left when performing 360° barrel rolls in shallow water.

The findings offer the first evidence of "handedness" in blue whales, the researchers say. They also highlight the importance of studying animals in their natural three-dimensional environments for revealing phenomena that may be impossible to capture in a captive environment.

"We believe that this left-side bias is the result of the whales maintaining a visual connection with their prey with their right eye," says Ari Friedlaender at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "If the whales turned to the right on approach, they would lose sight of their prey and decrease the ability to forage successfully. By rolling to the left, the whales may be maintaining this visual connection to their prey."

"To the best of our knowledge, this is the first example where animals show different lateralized behaviors depending on the context of the task that is being performed," says study co-author James Herbert-Read from Stockholm University in Sweden.

Friedlaender and his colleagues have long studied blue whales' feeding behaviors in an attempt to understand how they can support their large bodies. In the new study, the researchers attached motion-sensing tags to 63 blue whales living off the coast of California to capture how the animals move as they engulf their prey.

In total, the researchers collected data on more than 2,800 rolling lunges for prey to find that the animals approach their prey using two different rolling behaviors. In some cases, they roll to the side and then back, turning 180° or less. In other cases, they go in for a complete barrel roll that takes them around full circle.

The evidence shows that individual whales have a preference as to whether they roll to the right or the left. The vast majority of the whales showed a preference for rolling to the right, much as more people show a preference for using their right hands. But, the whales also showed some flexibility in their approach. When the animals did a barrel roll in shallow water to attack a small patch of prey from below at a steep angle, they more often spun left, going against their general preference.

The findings are the first to demonstrate a left-side bias for a lateralized routine behavior, the researchers say. They also highlight blue whales' adaptability when it comes to feeding behaviors. The whales shift their foraging strategies depending on where they are feeding in the water column, how their prey are behaving, and how they need to maneuver to forage successfully.

"We were completely surprised by these findings, but when considering the means by which the whales attack smaller prey patches, the behavior really seems to be effective, efficient, and in line with the mechanisms that drive their routine foraging behaviors," Friedlaender says.

"While most other large baleen whales that lunge-feed can feed on both krill patches and small forage fish like anchovies and herring, blue whales feed almost exclusively on krill patches and seem to exhibit feeding strategies to maximize their intake of as many krill as possible with each energetically costly feeding event," adds co-author Dave Cade at Stanford University.

The researchers say the next step is to conduct similar studies on related species of whales to understand whether the behaviors seen in blue whales also exist in them. They're also developing new technologies to capture even finer details of the whales' underwater movements.
Research funding for this study was provided in part by the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) Marine Mammal Program.

Current Biology, Friedlaender et al.: "Context dependent lateralized feeding strategies 1 in blue whales"

Current Biology (@CurrentBiology), published by Cell Press, is a bimonthly journal that features papers across all areas of biology. Current Biology strives to foster communication across fields of biology, both by publishing important findings of general interest and through highly accessible front matter for non-specialists. Visit: To receive Cell Press media alerts, contact

Cell Press

Related Whales Articles:

Blue whales change their tune before migrating
While parsing through years of recorded blue whale songs looking for seasonal patterns, researchers were surprised to observe that during feeding season in the summer, whales sing mainly at night, but as they prepare to migrate to their breeding grounds for the winter, this pattern reverses and the whales sing during the day.
Shhhh, the whales are resting
A Danish-Australian team of researchers recommend new guidelines for noise levels from whale-watching boats after having carried out experiments with humpback whales.
Fishing less could be a win for both lobstermen and endangered whales
A new study by researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) found that New England's historic lobster fishery may turn a higher profit by operating with less gear in the water and a shorter season.
North Atlantic right whales are in much poorer condition than Southern right whales
New research by an international team of scientists reveals that endangered North Atlantic right whales are in much poorer body condition than their counterparts in the southern hemisphere.
Solar storms could scramble whales' navigational sense
When our sun belches out a hot stream of charged particles in Earth's general direction, it doesn't just mess up communications satellites.
A better pregnancy test for whales
To determine whale pregnancy, researchers have relied on visual cues or hormone tests of blubber collected via darts, but the results were often inconclusive.
Why whales are so big, but not bigger
Whales' large bodies help them consume their prey at high efficiencies, a more than decade-long study of around 300 tagged whales now shows, but their gigantism is limited by prey availability and foraging efficiency.
Whales stop being socialites when boats are about
The noise and presence of boats can harm humpback whales' ability to communicate and socialise, in some cases reducing their communication range by a factor of four.
Endangered whales react to environmental changes
Some 'canaries' are 50 feet long, weigh 70 tons, and are nowhere near a coal mine.
Stranded whales detected from space
A new technique for analysing satellite images may help scientists detect and count stranded whales from space.
More Whales News and Whales Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Warped Reality
False information on the internet makes it harder and harder to know what's true, and the consequences have been devastating. This hour, TED speakers explore ideas around technology and deception. Guests include law professor Danielle Citron, journalist Andrew Marantz, and computer scientist Joy Buolamwini.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

What If?
There's plenty of speculation about what Donald Trump might do in the wake of the election. Would he dispute the results if he loses? Would he simply refuse to leave office, or even try to use the military to maintain control? Last summer, Rosa Brooks got together a team of experts and political operatives from both sides of the aisle to ask a slightly different question. Rather than arguing about whether he'd do those things, they dug into what exactly would happen if he did. Part war game part choose your own adventure, Rosa's Transition Integrity Project doesn't give us any predictions, and it isn't a referendum on Trump. Instead, it's a deeply illuminating stress test on our laws, our institutions, and on the commitment to democracy written into the constitution. This episode was reported by Bethel Habte, with help from Tracie Hunte, and produced by Bethel Habte. Jeremy Bloom provided original music. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at     You can read The Transition Integrity Project's report here.