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Why Are Blue Whales So Gigantic?

Credit: Mark Carwardine Getty Images “We are truly living in a time of giants.” Lofty language like this doesn’t happen often in scientific literature. But the person who wrote them , biologist Jeremy Goldbogen , understands: When it comes to writing about whales, the scale and mystery of their lives can be difficult to overstate.

For the past two decades, Goldbogen and his network of collaborators have been piecing together a puzzle: Whales are the largest animals to have ever lived— but why? The puzzle pieces were out of reach until the turn of the current century , and in only the last few years have there been enough in place to grasp the bigger picture.

We now understand that whale gigantism is tied closely to two things: one, their choice of prey, and two, the coincidence of their evolution with a global increase in the upwelling of nutrient-rich water from the depths of the ocean. Advertisement The first baleen whales to evolve filter-fed upon plankton—essentially, tiny, drifting sea bugs. But a more recent lineage, known as the rorquals, developed a remarkable new feeding strategy known as “ lunge feeding ”, which allowed them to access a different type of prey: […]

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