Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America

December 30, 2000 - Issue 26


The Old Men of the Sea

by Paul Rogers of Mercury News

Photo taken by Dave Rugh, NMML

Eskimo harpoon tips, acids in eyes show whales might have roamed arctic seas during the Civil War

Next time you hop a whale-watching tour or gaze out across the ocean from the coast's edge, consider this: Some of the whales out there now may have been swimming around during the Civil War. Or even when Thomas Jefferson was president.

In studies that could rewrite biology textbooks and establish whales as the longest-living mammals on Earth, scientists in Alaska and at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla have estimated the ages of three bowhead whales killed by Inupiat Eskimos in northern Alaska at 135 to 172 years. At the time it was killed, a fourth bowhead whale was believed to be a stunning 211 years old, the researchers concluded.

The ages were determined by studying changes in amino acids in the lenses of the whales' eyes.

Yet adding a layer of corroboration -- and a dash of Hollywood intrigue -- Inupiat hunters in Barrow and other villages along the frozen north coast of Alaska have found six ancient harpoon points lodged in the thick blubber of freshly killed bowhead whales since 1981. The harpoon points are made of ivory and stone, two materials not used by native Alaskan whalers since the 1880s, when they were introduced to steel harpoons.

In other words, the whales apparently had been swimming around for more than 100 years after surviving earlier hunts by the Inupiats' great-grandparents.

"This is just incredibly interesting," said Jeffrey Bada, a professor of marine chemistry at the Scripps Institution, administered by the University of California-San Diego. "Maybe what we're looking at are the survivors, the males who escaped hunting all those years."

At least two other scientists are now beginning different experiments to determine the whales' ages.

If it turns out that bowhead whales -- which live in the Beaufort and Bering seas between Russia and Alaska -- can indeed survive to be 150 years old or more, they would be the oldest mammals on the planet.

Elephants and some parrot species have lived to 70 in captivity. Tortoises can live to 100. Some fish, such as orange roughy and Chilean sea bass, are believed to live past 100. The oldest authenticated age to which any human has lived is 122 years. Jeanne Louise Calment, a French woman who met Vincent Van Gogh as a teenager, died at a nursing home in Arles in southern France in 1997.

Previously, the oldest whales were believed to be southern hemisphere blue and fin whales, estimated at up to 114 years old based on measurements taken from bony plugs in their ears. Such ear measurements do not work with bowheads.

"This just about doubles what everybody thought was the longevity of a large whale," said Steven Webster, senior marine biologist and a co-founder of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Others may be even older
"Up to now, most whale books put longevity at 80 to 100 years, about the same as humans. It's pretty astounding that whales swimming around out there now could have been swimming around during the Battle of Gettysburg when Lincoln was president."

Other whales across the globe also may be much older than previously thought.

"These are such poorly studied species, in terms of their age, behavior and everything," said Bada. "I think this is just the tip of the iceberg, if you want to know the truth."

Webster agreed.

The bowhead whale is a baleen whale, using baleen bristles to filter krill and fish from seawater for food. Other baleen species include blue whales, humpbacks, minke and gray whales.

"My guess is that we are going to be hearing about other species of whales living longer than we thought," Webster said.

The Inupiat people have hunted whales for more than 4,000 years. Each spring they use wooden boats and throw harpoons by hand. Sometimes they hunt from the ice edge.

Despite bans on commercial whale hunting in the United States since 1946, the Inupiat are allowed to kill about 50 bowheads every year as part of special subsistence rights granted by the International Whaling Commission and the U.S. government. About 8,300 bowheads exist in the wild, with a population expanding by about 3 percent yearly.

For decades in Barrow, a remote town of 5,000 people with no access by highway, Inupiat elders have spoken of whales that several generations of hunters had seen and recognized, based on markings.

Craig George, a wildlife biologist with North Slope Borough, the county government in Barrow, had theories that the lumbering bowheads might live more than 100 years. But he never could prove it.

"It seemed too fantastic at the time," said George. "Then these really beautiful ancient stone harpoons starting showing up, and we realized something really interesting might be happening here."

Anthropologists have since compared the stone harpoon points to others from the 18th and 19th centuries at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

About five years ago, George learned of work being done by Bada to date animals by their eyes. George, who had access to the frozen remains of bowhead whales killed between 1978 and 1997, mailed Bada the lenses from the eyes of 48 bowheads. Each eye is about the size of a billiard ball.

Through a technique known as racemization, Bada measured levels of amino acids, called aspartic acids, in the eyes, noting changes that can determine age. The technique has been used successfully on other whale and porpoise species and is sometimes used on humans by forensic pathologists.

More studies under way
Working with Judy Zeh, a statistician at the University of Washington in Seattle, they published their findings last year in the Canadian Journal of Zoology. In recent months, news of the discovery has been published in more widely read science magazines, such as Science News and New Scientist.

The researchers note that the estimates have a range of accuracy of about 16 percent. In other words, their estimate of 135 years for one of the older bowheads could be off by 23 years, ranging from 112 years to 158 years.

"Bowheads don't have birth certificates," Zeh said. "This is ongoing research. We have made some progress solving the mystery, but there's certainly more work to do. We are working away at it."

Another scientist, Mark Baskaran of Wayne State University in Detroit, is beginning experiments to estimate whale ages by measuring the decay of radioactive lead samples in bowhead bones. Researcher Cheryl Rosa of the University of Alaska plans to study the whales' skin, sampling pentosidine, a chemical that builds up with age and can be taken with small darts that do not injure the bowheads.

"The more different avenues of evidence we have, the more it will lead us to believe or question the results (of the earlier studies)," said Mason Weinrich, executive director of the Whale Center of New England, in Gloucester, Mass. "So far the science behind it is very good."

Why might bowheads live so long?
One theory is that because they live in harsh conditions, with fluctuating weather and food, the whales have evolved to live a long time and breed over many years so their species can survive.

Some experts say that if the phenomenal ages are borne out by future research, humans may have more reverence for whales, in the same way that redwood trees are valued for their ancient ages.

"This all adds luster to what is already a very compelling, charismatic animal," said Webster, of the Monterey Aquarium. "We compare everything to our human terms, and things that grow to old, old ages seem to grow in value. Isn't that the way it is with wines and antiques?"

The Institute of Cetacean Research


Enchanted Learning-Whales



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