Whales are constantly feeding on krill, tiny marine organisms, to sustain themselves. The process of how a whale gulps down krill has been a mystery to researchers, but a new perspective offered by suction cup cameras and sensors may yield some clues.
Whales like humpback and blue whales engage in what's called lunge feeding. They open their jaws very wide and take in large amounts of water and krill. The process requires them to slow down between the drag created by opening mouths and the influx of water. Add in the fact they're essentially holding their breath while they're collecting food, and it's a very energy-intensive process.
Scientists have long debated whether whales open their mouths when they reach peak speed or just before reaching peak speed. So researchers at Stanford decided to see what they could learn by affixing cameras and other sensors to a whale's back. The result, shown in the video, is like you're riding on a whale's back during dinner time. The recordings show that the speed at which whales gobbled up their food depended on the type of food: When whales munched on krill, they moved at peak speed and then closed their mouths as they slowed down. When whales engulfed larger fish, the whales changed up the timing, likely to account for the the fact that fish escape more often than krill.
In addition to providing a unique view and offering new insights into the mechanics of feeding, the findings will also help with conservation efforts. A better understand of what and how whales eat can help scientists better shape ocean preservation policies and efforts to the whales' benefit.