Scientists believe that a peculiar feeding strategy that whales have only recently begun using is confusing them: They swim to the ocean’s surface, open their mouths to a gaping yawn with their upper jaw just below the water’s surface, and wait for a lot of fish to come in.
However, the strategy might not be completely novel. It may have been observed and recorded by our distant ancestors, according to a peer-reviewed study that was published on Tuesday in the journal Marine Mammal Science. This knowledge was buried in ancient texts and folklore.
Modern scientists have known for a long time that whales eat by swimming quickly with their mouths open toward a school of fish or krill.
However, when the method known as “trap feeding” or “tread-water feeding” was first observed in 2011, researchers speculated that changing ecological conditions may have influenced whales to adopt a novel feeding strategy. Or, perhaps it was only discovered for the very first time because new technologies like drones make it possible to observe whale behavior in unprecedented detail.
In any case, the review that was released on Tuesday suggests that Old Norse writings from the thirteenth century may have included depictions of whales as an enchanted being known as the “hafgufa” and mention examples of whale trapping.
As per the review, “while postmedieval researchers have habitually mistaken the hafgufa for fantastical animals, for example, the kraken and even mermaids,” prior sources unequivocally allude to it as a “type” of whale. This raises the intriguing and significant possibility that these feeding strategies may have existed in the past rather than being discovered for the first time in two species on opposite sides of the globe within the last two decades.
One of the most compelling examples from ancient texts was found in a document called Konungs skuggsjá, or “The King’s Mirror,” according to study coauthor Dr. John McCarthy, a maritime archaeologist in the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at Flinders University in Australia. McCarthy stated that this document was likely an attempt to compile something comparable to our current encyclopedias and was likely written for a Norwegian king in the 1200s.
According to the description in Konungs skuggsjá, “in those instances where it has appeared to men, it has looked more like an island than a fish.” Nonetheless, it likewise incorporated this perception of hunting rehearses that are strikingly tantamount to contemporary perceptions of stay afloat or trap taking care of.
“It is said that this fish’s nature is such that when it goes to eat, it makes a loud belch out of its throat, bringing a lot of food with it,” the fish’s owner said. Fish of all shapes and sizes congregate nearby in search of food and nourishment. The large fish, on the other hand, keeps its mouth open for a brief time—no more or less than a large sound or fjord—and the fish rush in, unaware. When it is full, the hafgufa also closes its mouth, catching and concealing all of the prey that had come looking for food. The study’s authors hypothesized that the “belch” described in that text might refer to the process by which rorqual whales filter their meals, removing some food to aid in the capture of more prey. Additionally, they claimed that whale feeding can occasionally odor like “rotten cabbage.”
Facts about whales vs. folklore There are even earlier examples of similar descriptions of the “hafgufa” creature that use different names, possibly from a Greek text written between 150 and 200 AD. These descriptions are known as “hafgufa.” Another source of examples is the medieval bestiaries, which featured vividly drawn depictions of both real and imagined creatures.
McCarthy noted that these texts were intended to be a serious reference work when they were compiled, despite the fact that they contain what appear to the modern eye to be descriptions of fictitious animals.
“They could very easily have both accurate and incorrect information,” he said. We are unable to distinguish between species except for the fact that modern science now identifies what species actually do exist and what species are credible or not.
It’s possible that descriptions of “hafgufa” and other similar creatures fell into the realm of fantasy and folklore over time because these early descriptions were not entirely accurate. McCarthy cites a drawing from 1658 depicting a massive sea monster with two orifices on its head that shoot water. Despite the fact that the drawing appears to be fiction, McCarthy suggests that it could simply be “someone’s misinterpretation of a blowhole.”