Ancient texts shed new light on the hidden nature of the whale that ‘captured the mind’

A new study shows that, in the last two thousand years, the strange feeding behavior of fish has been described by scientists in the 2010s in ancient texts about sea creatures.

In 2011, Bryde’s fish were first seen in the Sea of ​​Thailand on the surface of the water with their jaws open at various angles, waiting for fish to swim into their mouths. Scientists call this unusual technique, which is unknown to modern science, as “economical water feeding”. Around the same time, a similar behavior was observed in the humpback whale on Canada’s Vancouver Island, which researchers called “eating a trap”.

In both attitudes the whale holds its head upright in the water, with the tip of its snout and jaw protruding from the surface. The key to the success of the strategy, scientists believe, is that fish deliberately drift towards the target refuge of the whale’s mouth.

Flinders University professors now believe they have discovered an allegory of morality in ancient texts, first appearing in Physiologist – Naturalist – Greek text compiled in Alexandria around 150-200CE.

Dr. John McCarthy, a marine biologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia, and the leader of the study, discovered this while reading Norse mythology, about a year after seeing a video of water feeding. by whale.

He noted that the details of a sea animal known as haffa it seems to describe the behavior of feeding. “It was really a coincidence,” McCarthy said.

Images of sea creatures in ancient writings: about (a) 1250; (b) 1200; (c) 1225-1275; (d) 1200; (e) 1240; (f) 1270; (g) 13th century. Image: Public domain

The most detailed description appears in the middle of the 13th century Old Norse text known as Konungs skuggsjá – King’s Mirror. It reads: “When he goes to feed… a big fish opens his mouth for a moment, not even less wide than a big sound or a fjord, and ignorant and careless, the fish gets into their number. And when her stomach and mouth are full. [the hafgufa] he closes his mouth, so he grabs and hides in it everything that comes to look for food.”

The King’s Mirror is an educational text used to explain the world to young people, McCarthy said. “They’re getting bigger and bigger… [but] it’s not an interesting comparison with all kinds of supernatural things. He added that the distinction between fish and marine mammals was probably not well understood at the time.

A 1986 study by the King’s Mirror found a connection between the Old Norse 26 description and the marine animals known to science, but concluded that the hafgufa “must be relegated to the supernatural world”.

“It was frustrating for these scholars because they couldn’t find an animal that matched this,” McCarthy said. “Now [with the recently documented feeding behaviour] We think we have information on that.”

In the Naturalist – a 2,000-year-old text that “records the animals brought to Egypt from India and the Middle East by early historians such as Herodotus, Ctesias, Aristotle and Plutarch” – the ancient Greeks talk about nature as how. aspidochelone.

Another version of the text says: “When he is hungry, he opens his mouth and emits a kind of smell from his mouth, the smell of which when the small fish recognize him, they gather in his mouth.” . But when his mouth was filled with various kinds of fish, he closed his mouth and swallowed them.

Bryde's Whale feeding in the Gulf of Thailand
Bryde’s Whale feeding in the Gulf of Thailand. Photo: Surachai Passada/Department of Water and Water Resources

The researchers note: “Confirm evidence for the origin of myths is rare and often impossible, but the comparisons here are better than any previous suggestions.

“The lack of scientific observation before the last two decades can be explained by a lack of feeding techniques, or because the techniques are not used.”

Dr Olaf Meynecke, a researcher at Griffith University’s Center for Marine and Aquatic Research, who was not involved in the study, said: “It is interesting that this type of feeding has been documented thousands of years ago. passed but it has been revealed as a new technique in recent years.

“It shows that this kind of interesting feeding behavior has captured people’s imaginations in the past.

“Feeding the trap only works in the presence of other predators,” Meynecke said, adding that it has been observed in aquariums and is not a social feeding activity.

“As [has a] less energy for the whale, this feeding activity makes a lot of sense if there are less schooling fish left after feeding.”

Bryde’s whales and humpbacks are both rorquals, a type of baleen whale.

The research was published in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

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