It’s just too good not to mention. Yesterday I re-posted an old article about manatee dispersal across the Atlantic. And on the same day came news that a living Grey whale Eschrichtius robustus has been seen off Herzliya Marina, Israel, meaning that at least one living, breathing Grey whale is currently swimming around in the Mediterranean (in order to make sure that Americans pick up this article while googling: Gray whale Gray whale Gray whale). A team of experts were sent out to look at it: they verified the identification and got great photos, like this one…
As has been mentioned by journalists already, Grey whales once inhabited the North Atlantic, so the presence of a Mediterranean animal is being seen as a sort of ‘return’ of the species to the region. So far as I can tell, however, there’s no evidence from fossils or archaeology that Eschrichtius previously occurred in the Mediterranean [UPDATE: this isn’t correct as Macé (2003) reported Grey whale remains from the archaeological site of Lattara on the southern coast of France]: its remains are well known from the UK (Devon being one of the best places for Grey whale fossils), the Netherlands and Sweden. However, some authors have suggested that Atlantic grey whales wintered (and bred) along the Mediterranean coasts of Europe and/or Africa (Rice & Wolman 1971, Macé 2003).
Little known is that the Grey whale was actually described from European fossils (Lilljeborg named it from Swedish fossils in 1861) before it was discovered, alive, in the Pacific. This explains why the living populations had a different name – Rhachianectes glaucus (Cope, 1868), originally Agaphelus glaucus Cope, 1868 – prior to the 20th century realisation that the European Eschrichtius fossils and living Pacific animals were the same thing.
Why Eschrichtius became extinct in the Atlantic is not really known, but it’s likely that human hunting was to blame (Bryant 1995) – it’s a slow, conspicuous, coast-hugging whale, and we know from the surviving Pacific populations that they’re extremely vulnerable to human disturbance. Evidence that Eschrichtius was known to people in the Atlantic, and hunted by them, comes from Jon Gudmundsson’s 1640-something depiction [shown above] of the Icelandic ‘Sandloegja’. Paul Dudley’s 1725 description of the ‘scrag whale’ (the basis for Balaena gibbosa Erxleben, 1777) from New England is also generally taken to be of a Grey whale.
Anyway, given that Atlantic grey whales have been extinct for a few centuries at least, what is one doing off the coast of Israel today? The possibility that a population lingered on and still survives is difficult to take seriously given how un-cryptic these whales are and how thoroughly Atlantic waters have been whaled, but I wish it were true! And the possibility that the whale is an escapee (!!!) or results from an introduction effort also looks somewhat unlikely, to say the least (Californian sea lions have sometimes been reported from the Mediterranean, but that’s very different). Actually, re-introduction has seriously been suggested for the species in recent years (e.g., Wolff 2000)… is it possible that covert re-introduction is underway, and that nobody told us?
What seems most likely is that the whale must have swam to the Mediterranean from the Pacific. What the hell. What route did it take? Why did it do this? Is this a one-off, or do other Grey whales wander so widely? In recent years it’s been shown that some Great white sharks Carcharodon carcharias – typically imagined as coast-huggers – wander for hundreds of kilometres across open ocean in order to get to such places as Hawaii. Is it possible that Grey whales (and other ‘coastal’ cetaceans) sometimes do likewise? This really is an incredible discovery; the sort of thing you might expect to appear on April 1st.
One or two other reports of Atlantic grey whales have been claimed over the years (they’re in the cryptozoological literature), but they’re far from convincing. I might have more to say about this in future, but this article was written in a hurry. Wow. Just… wow. The BBC news report is here.
For previous Tet Zoo articles on baleen whales see…
- A 6 ton model, and a baby that puts on 90 kg a day: rorquals part I
- From cigar to elongated, bloated tadpole: rorquals part II
- Lunging is expensive, jaws can be noisy, and what’s with the asymmetry? Rorquals part III
- Inside Nature’s Giants part II: whale guts and hindlimbs ahoy
Refs – –
Bryant, P. J. 1995. Dating remains of Gray whales from the eastern North Atlantic. Journal of Mammalogy 76, 857-861.
Macé, M. 2003. Did the Gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus, calve in the Mediterranean? Lattara 16, 153-164.
Rice, D. W. & Wolman, A. A. 1971. The Life History and Ecology of the Gray whale Eschrichtius robustus. American Society of Mammalogists, Special Publication No. 2.
Wolff, W. (2000). The south-eastern North Sea losses of vertebrate fauna during the past 2000 years Biological Conservation, 95 (2), 209-217 DOI: 10.1016/S0006-3207(00)00035-5