Researchers have been looking for answers as to why some of the ocean’s largest whales beach themselves on Earth’s many shorelines, sometimes in large numbers. Unfortunately, figuring out the cause of the abnormal behavior isn’t easy, and answers continue to elude us even after years of research.
Image Credit: WikimediaImages/Pixabay
Because there’s still no proven cause for the phenomenon today, researchers continue to collect scientific evidence and develop theories that agree with what their findings.
One of the strongest arguments for the behavior today is how the whales’ sense of the Earth’s magnetic field, also known as magnetoreception, is somehow being interfered with. Like a compass on the fritz, this would disorient whales and send them in the wrong direction during migration.
In the International Journal of Astrobiology, researchers lay out the groundwork for an argument about how solar storms, the same kinds that result in the Aurora Borealis (northern and southern lights), could potentially cause such disorientation in whales by throwing their magnetic field perception out of whack.
As many as 29 large whales landed in the North Sea in early 2016. The phenomenon was quite unusual considering that the animals typically explore deeper waters with higher concentrations of food and resources.
The researchers also sought to learn what caused the whales to venture into the North Sea in the first place. Intriguingly, the findings were almost too good to be true.
Aligning with the dates that all 29 whales entered the North Sea were a series of solar storms on December 20, December 21, December 31 of 2015 and on January 1 of 2016. The bursts of charged particles bombarding the Earth’s magnetic field at the time purportedly would have been powerful enough to cause navigational issues.
Researchers are aware of these events causing navigational issues for birds and honey bees, so it's not to far-fetched to suggest that geomagnetic storms resulting from solar wind could impact whales too.
As it would seem, there’s substantial evidence for the screwy magnetoperception theory. On the other hand, researchers wonder how the evidence stacks up to other theories, like the one about boat and submarine sonar jamming whale communication or the creatures beaching themselves because they're ill.
The sonar theory is still plausible and in need of additional research, but necropsies performed on many beached whales have revealed no serious health issues, discrediting that idea.
Limited evidence makes it hard to conclusively prove that solar storms are the standalone issue behind whale beachings, and to disprove the other theories. Fortunately, solar storms occur rather often, so researchers will monitor whale movement patterns during these events to learn how it impacts their navigation.
For now, if you want to find out more about other possible reasons behind why whales beach themselves, then you might find the following video insightful:
It should be interesting to see what we’ll learn from the hard data once it’s collected.