Today, we find that whales and elephants have more
in common than just size. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
We humans, you and I, are
members of one of the larger animal species. Maybe
a look at the largest species, at elephants and
sperm whales, would tell us something about
Whales and elephants have the largest brains of any
creature. (By the way, large brains don't
necessarily go with large body sizes. Dinosaurs had
much smaller brains than whales or elephants. So
too does the huge rhinoceros.) A recent article in
the American Scientist magazine tells
us that whale and elephant behavior is not only
complex, it's also alike in both species. Here's a
... the females [of either species] live in
highly social family units that rely on
well-developed communication ... the much larger
males live separate, more solitary lives, roving
between female groups during the breeding season
... delaying breeding until they are large and
Yet those matriarchal family groups, as well as the
loosely organized bands of males, are marked by
physical contact and care for one another. Groups
of whales, or of elephants, spend many hours a day
together, rubbing up against one another, caressing
each other with flippers or with trunks, and
quietly talking among themselves.
Conversation among sperm whales takes the form of
patterned sets of clicks whose frequencies can vary
from 200 to 32,000 Hertz. Elephants use very low
frequency sound -- below the threshold of human
hearing -- to speak with one another.
There are other human qualities. Both species live
to the age of about 60. Both almost certainly
remember long-past events. And individuals of both
species act heroically to protect other members of
Like humans, whales and elephants are adaptable.
Their diets, like ours, are varied and flexible.
During the Miocene epoch, various kinds of
elephants lived everywhere on Earth except
Australia and Antarctica. Sperm whales today range
the oceans from Antarctica to Greenland. Now, of
course, we gradually hem in whales and elephants as
we mindlessly carry out their extermination.
The consequences of that ongoing extermination are
huge. Both whales and elephants play large roles in
the ecology. We humans don't yet kill quite as many
fish as whales do, but we soon will. The problem
is, our consumption is new to the ancient balance
of nature. It threatens the very existence of
whales themselves. And removing whales (or any of
the large species) promises vast and unpredictable
disruptions of the ecology.
It's a terrifying thought: we're eliminating what
are, in ways we don't begin to understand, the most
intelligent species on Earth. We might well get
away with that killing and still survive. If we do,
of course, it'll be in a greatly altered world.
What's heart-breaking is that it'll also be in a
world where we never got to know these creatures --
and never had a chance to savor their wisdom.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds