Many years ago, an atheist challenged my statement that everything in the creation had a designed purpose and filled a need. My atheist friend insisted that the whale is one example of a poorly designed creature with no purpose. He said that they eat massive amounts of the ocean’s food that could be eaten by other, more useful creatures. He also challenged that they contribute nothing to the ecology of the oceans. At the time, I didn’t have a good answer to why whales are useful. Whale oil seemed to me to be a weak answer. Since then, I have learned the value of a whale.
One of the things I love about science is that it continues to look for understandings of the world in which we live. New studies of whales have revealed some facts that show the whale is incredibly useful. The current winter edition of Defenders of Wildlife magazine reports data on the value of a whale.
Whales live a long time, and they accumulate carbon in their bodies. When the whale dies, it takes that carbon to the ocean bottom, removing it from the atmosphere. New research shows that each whale takes 33 tons (30 metric tons) of carbon out of the atmosphere. By comparison, a tree absorbs 48 pounds (22 kg) of carbon dioxide a year. In 60 years, which is the lifespan of most whales, a tree would remove one ton of carbon from the air. Whales play a role in removing the greenhouse gas that people are concerned about today.
In a whale’s lifetime, it will bring minerals to the ocean surface to stimulate phytoplankton growth. This plankton contributes more than 50% of the oxygen we breathe and absorbs 37 billion tons (33.5 metric tons) of carbon dioxide a year. Phytoplankton also sustains many fish species, and today, fishing is a 150 billion dollar industry.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines anthropomorphism as “the attribution of human traits, emotions or intentions to non-human entities.” We are all guilty of anthropomorphism when we attribute the behavior of our pets to human emotions. The Oxford dictionary goes on to say that anthropomorphism “is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.”
When a dog is jumping around and barking and licking us, we assume that the behavior of the dog is because of joy. In reality, this is an instinctive behavior in animals when establishing dominance within the pack. When the same dog tucks its tail between its legs and slinks away, we assume it is feeling guilty when it is an act of submission for fear of being attacked.
Some scientists attempt to prove that humans are just animals acting out animal responses to various environments. They conduct experiments to show that animals do the things we think are unique to humans. An example is attempting to explain the human smile. For us humans, a smile is an expression of happiness, warmth, and friendliness. When an animal grins, it shows its teeth expressing terror or aggression. When you see a monkey or ape grin on a commercial, sitcom, or movie, there is a trainer behind the camera threatening it.
Human traits which are not seen in animals include worship, guilt, sympathy, and creativity in art and music. It is essential to look at other explanations when considering the behavior of animals. Recently people witnessed a female whale carrying her dead calf for nearly a week. Several newspaper articles were guilty of anthropomorphism by saying that the whale was expressing grief. Many times animals in the wild avoid the scavenging of a dead sibling or offspring by maintaining a vigil over the corpse. That instinctive action assures that the offspring is, in fact, dead, and avoids spreading the disease that killed the dead animal.
I remember a field trip I had in my NSF graduate workshop for science teachers. At an aquarium in Chicago, we watched a demonstration of natural selection. A hungry northern pike was placed in an aquarium with three small fish. One was a wounded and incapacitated minnow. Another was a slightly wounded but otherwise relatively healthy fish of the same species. The third was a healthy well-fed fish. The lesson plan said that the students should predict which of the three fish the pike would eat. Our group of teachers all agreed it would be the incapacitated minnow. For the next 30 minutes, we watched the pike tear up the aquarium trying to get the healthy minnow and avoiding the two wounded fish. We teachers debated as to why that happened, but the aquarium workers said it was frequently the case.
Humans are unique because we are created in the image of God. That allows us to do things that reflect that unique makeup. When we interpret animal behavior in human terms, we are guilty of anthropomorphism.
One of the amazing features of animals is design in hearing. Humans can hear sounds between 20 and 20,000 vibrations per second (Hertz). That range allows us to communicate through the air and enjoy music. Various animals can hear sounds in different parts of the frequency spectrum.
Dogs can hear frequencies higher than 20,000 Hertz.We call these sounds ultrasonic because they are above the frequencies we can hear. We use ultrasonic sounds for examining the organs inside the human body. We use it to view unborn babies inside their mother’s womb. Ultrasonic sound has uses such as cleaning of jewelry or other items. But we can’t hear it. The ability to hear ultrasonic sounds gives dogs and other animals a defense advantage. Try to sneak up on a dog. If you open a door or step on a floorboard creating an ultrasonic squeak which you can’t hear, the dog will hear and know that you are coming.
Elephants, whales, and other large animals can hear low frequencies and use them to communicate over many miles because low frequencies travel more efficiently through the ground or water. But it isn’t just large animals that use these subsonic sounds. Some small animals, like moles, can also hear low frequencies since those sounds travel well through the ground. If a mole communicated through sounds we could hear, finding and killing them would be easier for their predators and us. Because they communicate at frequencies below 20 Hertz, they are not easily detected by animals above the ground.
Design in hearing also applies to frogs, snakes, and many insects that can also hear very low or very high frequencies allowing them to communicate with others of their kind without detection by different species. Different creatures use various portions of the audio spectrum. If a creature gives off sounds that its predators can hear, they will literally be “dead meat.”
Over the years we have presented data on some amazing migrations. We have had several discussions about the Arctic tern and how it makes its incredible 12,000-mile journey. Research has shown that the Arctic tern uses multiple cues including magnetism, sight, smell, and even sound. We have also talked about whales, salmon, and sea turtles and the way they benefit multiple ecosystems by their migrations. Now we have a new migration that has just been discovered and is equivalent to 20,000 flying reindeer. It’s migrating insects.
According to the study, 2-5 million migrating insects fly over the United Kingdom each year. The study is reported in the December 23, 2016, issue of Science by a team headed by Jason Chapman. Tracking these arthropods involves the use of special radar designed to detect insects. The team estimates that the total biomass of these arthropods is 3200 tons which is 7.7 times more than the biomass of the songbirds in the same area. These are tiny creatures with some of them weighing less than 10 milligrams.
Chapman notes that these arthropods are not just accidentally caught up in the wind. Some of them climb to the top of a plant to launch their flight. Some stand on tiptoe and put out silk until the wind catches them and carries them away. The animals only launch when the wind is to the north from May to June, and in August and September, they launch when the wind blows to the south. Chapman concludes “these arthropods must have some kind of built-in compass plus a preferred direction and the genetics that change that preference as they or their offspring make the return migration.“
Let me introduce you to an animal that lives in the Arctic Ocean, spending much of its time under the pack ice. This animal has a refined sonar that is so intense and so directional that it can narrow or widen the sonar beam to find prey over short and long distances. The sound beams are asymmetric, narrowing on the top which minimizes noise clutter coming from the surface of the ocean or from the pack ice it swims under.
This is the most sophisticated sonar observed in a living species, and the animal that possesses it is the narwhal. The mechanism that generates the sonar is like that of a porpoise with clicks being emitted by the animal. The narwhal can do things that no other animal can do. Because narwhals can scan vertically as they dive, they always know where open patches of water exist so they can get back to a place where they can breathe.