10 Cool Facts about Narwhals

Rare narwhal with two tusks!
Rare narwhal with two tusks!

1. Narwhals are often called the “Unicorns of the Sea” because of their tusk, which is actually a long tooth.

2. Most male narwhals have a tusk, while only some females have one. Some narwhals even have two tusks! Their tusks have over 10 million nerves in them and can be up to 9 feet long.

3. The narwhal’s scientific name Monodon monoceras means “one tooth, one horn.” Males have been seen crossing tusks and it is assumed that they are fighting for females or trying to impress them.

4. The narwhals’ tusks can be used for hunting. They use their tusks to slap and stun fish before eating them. Check out video footage of narwhals hunting with their tusks

5. Narwhals live in pods of 10-100 individuals in the Arctic, but have been seen in pods up to 1000.

6. Narwhals mainly hang out at the surface, but can dive down to 5,000 feet deep (1,524 m)

7. Narwhals feed on fish, shrimp and squid. They are suction feeders that swallow their food whole.

8. Predators include killer whales, polar bears, walruses and native Inuit hunters.

9. Narwhals can grow up to 17 feet long (5.2m) and weigh 4,200 pounds (1,905 kg).

10. Defenders.org says, “Narwhals might be more sensitive to impacts of climate change than the polar bear.” Threats to Narwhals include oil and gas development of the Arctic, climate change, and shipping vessels that cause collisions and noise pollution.

Book Review: Manatee Rescue by Nicola Davies

Manatee Rescue by Nicola Davies
Manatee Rescue by Nicola Davies

“Manatee Rescue” by Nicola Davies (Candlewick Press, 2015) is a middle grade (grades 4-8) children’s book about a rescued baby manatee in the Amazon. In the backmatter, we find out that this book is based on a true-life story.

There are three types of manatees, the West Indian, African and Amazonian. This book is about the ones that live along the Amazon River in South America.

The protagonist is Manuela. She grows up in a culture where killing manatees is a status symbol. She looks forward to the day when she can kill one alongside her father Silvio. Manuela and Silvio succeed in killing a mother manatee, but nothing prepares Manuela for the instant bond she feels for the manatee calf. She secretly vows to raise the calf and return it to the wild.

Manuela and her father take the two-month-old calf home, and Silvio sells the calf as a pet despite Manuela’s protests. Later that night, Manuela and her friend Libia steal the calf and bring it to Granny Raffy’s. Raffy often rehabilitates wild animals.

At Raffy’s, the two girls learn to take care of the calf, from nursing him to cleaning out his pond. Manuela bonds with the calf, who prefers her feeding him his bottle full of milk.

The two girls make a list of things to do, the most important ones (and seemingly impossible) being getting the villagers to care about and never hunt manatees again.

Without giving away the rest of the story away, I will say this book has a happy ending, both fictionally and in real-life.
The backmatter is informative not only about the manatees themselves, but also about the relationship between the natives and the manatees.

Although meant for kids, I think conservation-minded and animal-loving adults will enjoy this quick read (105 pages). It’s a perfect introduction to manatees and community-based conservation for all ages.

10 Fascinating Facts About Manatees

Manatee underwater with algae photo courtesy VisualHunt.com
Manatee photo courtesy VisualHunt.com

10 Fascinating Facts About Manatees

1. Manatees, despite being called “sea cows” are related to elephants!

2. Besides weighing a lot (1000 pounds or 454 kilograms, more or less), both elephants and manatees have fingernails.

3. Manatees like warm water (like off Florida, USA) and will migrate up river to warm springs and the outfall of power plants in winter.

4. Manatee calves nurse under their mother’s flippers and will stay with them for 1-2 years.

5. Manatees can grow up to 12 feet (3.7 meters).

6. Manatees are herbivores and eat sea grass and other water plants.

7. Manatees continually grow teeth throughout life since they wear them down chewing on plants.

8. There are 3 types of manatees-Amazonian, West Indian, and West African.

9. Manatees have prehensile (can grasp) upper lips which they use to get food and to eat.

10. Manatees can graze for up to 7 hours a day because adults eat 10-15% of their body weight a day!

Elephant Seals, El Nino & Domoic Acid Poisoning

elephant seal
Newborn Elephant Seal photo by: Charmaine Coimbra

Hello, my name is Ellie, and I’m an Elephant Seal. I’m excited because I’ll become a mother soon. I’ve been pregnant for eleven months. I’ve come to Ano Nuevo, off the central coast of California, USA. Here there’s what we call a rookery, where elephant seals hang out on the beach. We spend up to ten months a year at sea, so being on the beach is a vacation for us. Well, maybe not for the mothers who have to protect their pups and produce milk that contains up to 50 percent milkfat (human breastmilk is only 4 percent fat).

I feel the pup coming. I push, push and push until plop! My daughter is born! I clean her up by licking her. She’s already vocal, probably because she’s hungry. We have a special call to one another so we can be reunited if separated. The beach is crowded-there’s a lot of elephant seals here.

I worry that some male will bowl over my pup, or my pup will get in the way during one of the dominant male’s battles with rivals. Otherwise our days here will be blissful; sunning ourselves in the sun, nursing, and dozing off. I won’t wean her for four weeks, and after five weeks I’ll mate and finally return to the sea to feed.

Sigh, I’m not looking forward to returning to sea. Sure I’ll be famished, but the food fish just aren’t here. Usually, in a non-El Nino year, there is plenty of food. That is due to something called upwelling, which occurs off parts of the west coast of the Americas. Upwelling is when cold, nutrient-rich seawater comes up from the deep ocean onto the surface. Plankton, microscopic plants and animals that make up the beginning of the food chain, feast on the nutrients. The fish, that I eat, find plankton to eat.

In a non El Nino year, the trade winds blow west warm seawater from the Eastern Pacific Ocean (the west coast of the Americas) to the Western Pacific Ocean (Asia). This allows the cold nutrient dense water that dwells in the deep waters below to replace the warm surface water that was blown away west. This is what causes upwelling along the west coast of the Americas. In contrast, during an El Nino year, the trade winds stop and the warm water stays in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Warmer water means no upwelling, less plankton, and therefore less fish for me to eat.

To boot, once I find food there’s a horrible toxic algae called Pseudo-nitzschia australis in it. Domoic acid poisoning has neurological effects on animals that eat food contaminated with it. According to the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, USA, “About three-quarters of the California sea lions at our hospital are suffering from domoic acid toxicity, which primarily attacks the brain, causing lethargy, disorientation, seizures and if not treated, eventually, death.” Recently the Dungeness crab season has been canceled because of this algae. This algae is also responsible for the red tide seen periodically off the coasts that closes shellfish fisheries.

It’s an uncertain world that my daughter will face. I hope she can survive to a few years old to have pups of her own.

Meet the Endangered Vaquita Porpoise

Vaquita Porpoise Gulf of California
Vaquita photo by: Chris Johnson courtesy of http://vaquita.tv

Hello, my name is Vance, and I am a Vaquita. I am also known as the Gulf of California Harbor Porpoise. I live off of Mexico in the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez). There are only 30 of us left (as of 2018), making us the most critically endangered small cetacean (whale) in the world. Eek, that’s a lot of pressure on us, just trying to stay alive. I’d hate to go extinct just because we live in a limited range.

We are the smallest cetacean, reaching lengths of 4-5 feet (1.2-1.5 meters) and weights of 65-120 pounds (30-55 kg). We are hard for humans to study because we avoid boats if possible. It’s nothing personal, except that we’ve had so much trouble with humans setting out fishing nets (see below). We hang out in pairs, but sometimes we get together in groups of 7-10. We eat schooling fish such as croakers and grunts, as well as crustaceans, squid and octopus

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Our greatest threats are through commercial fishing. Gillnets are miles long, and are used to catch shrimp for export to places such as the United States. Shrimp is the most popular seafood of choice there. Gillnets catch anything and anybody in its path, including us Vaquita.
There is also a fish called the Totoaba, whose swim bladders are exported to China for a medicinal soup. This is an illegal fishery, and Vaquita get caught in these nets too.

The bad news is that cetaceans worldwide are caught as bycatch in fishermen’s nets. 300,000 cetaceans die a year, or one every two minutes, just to satisfy human’s demand for seafood.

The good news is that there is a moratorium on gillnets in the Gulf of California for two years. If it gets enforced regularly, then my population of Vaquita have a chance to recover. Females have calves every other year, and the calves already born will have a chance to grow up.

For now, it’s time for my morning meal. It’s time to celebrate!

For more on the Vaquita, visit Vaquita, Last Chance for the Desert Porpoise
NOAA Fisheries Page about the Vaquita

Photos and video taken under permit (Oficio No. DR/847/08 ) from the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP/Secretaría del Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT), within a natural protected area subject to special management and decreed as such by the Mexican Government. This work was made possible thanks to the collaboration and support of the Coordinador de Investigación y Conservación de Mamíferos Marinos at the Instiuto Nacional de Ecología (INE).