Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn for June's Secret Science Club lecture with Comparative Anatomist Dr Joy Reidenberg of Mt Sinai School of Medicine and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Dr Reidenberg is also the dissection specialist for the show Inside Nature's Giants. The theme of her lecture tonight was "Why Whales are Weird".
Dr Reidenberg gave us an overview of whales, beginning with the distinction between the Mysticeti or baleen whales and the Odontoceti or toothed whales. As an added bonus, she passed out samples of baleen, which is made of keratin which grows from the whales' palates. The baleen whales feed by filtering small organisms out of the water- the baleen acts as a strainer which retains these organisms in the whale's mouth as the whale expels the water with its tongue. The baleen whales can be broadly divided into "skimmers" and "gulpers", and the various baleen whales have wildly divergent baleen morphologies. The Odontoceti, or toothed whales, range in size from relatively small creatures like the harbor porpoise to the sperm whale. Both baleen and toothed whales have the ability to produce various sounds- high frequency sounds (which do not have a great underwater range) are used for echolocation while low frequency sounds (which travel for long distances underwater) are typically used for communication- male sperm whales can produce a 200 decibel "clang" which Dr Reidenberg likened to a cetacean equivalent of "Hey, ladies!"
After the overview of the whales, Dr Reidenberg present the sperm whale dissection episode of Inside Nature's Giants. This is a must-see for those who aren't too squeamish (lotta guts, folks... lotta guts)- besides being informative, Dr Reidenberg is an extremely engaging presenter, her enthusiasm, even in the face of the sort of off-putting occurrences which can happen when one is dealing with tons of dead meat, is infectious.
Dr Reidenberg also gave some great autobiographical information- she related how her kindergarten teacher tried to dissuade her from playing with trucks because she was a girl, and how her current job involves using heavy machinery to deal with the huge carcasses that she works on. She also related how she transported the head of the ill-fated Sludgie the Whale in a body bag, which she left in her backyard, necessitating a desperate call to her neighbor (she left home early to give a lecture) to let him know that there wasn't a human corpse in the bag.
The brilliant, hilarious Dr Reidenberg was interviewed on NPR as well- for those who are squicked out by tons of dead whale meat, the interview is a lot less gory.
The lecture was great, and Dr Reidenberg gave a good, long Q&A session afterwards. Some bastard in the audience asked her about the olfactory lobes of whales (reasoning that smell would not be too useful in animals which have to hold their breath a good deal of the time). She indicated that toothed whales have negligible olfactory bulbs while baleen whales tend to have small ones and that, during one of her dissections, she located a couple of "pits" in the lip of a baleen whale that were possibly involved in taste.
Once again, the Secret Science Club lecture was top-notch. In other S.S.C. news, prodigal Michael Crewdson, co-author of Carnivorous Nights, was visiting his ancestral homeland in the 718 area code. Who needs a fatted calf when one can have a beached whale?