The Atlantic

Is the World’s Largest Animal Too Reliant on the Past?

A clever new study shows that blue whales lean on their memory to guide their epic migrations.
Source: Jeremy A. Goldbogen

Imagine trying to test the memory of the blue whale—the biggest animal that exists or has ever existed, a 190-ton behemoth that dwarfs even the largest dinosaur, a leviathan that is rarely seen except when it comes up for air and a minute part of its 110-foot-long body breaks the surface and slowly crests for what seems like an eternity. How would you subject such a creature to a psychological test?

You can’t, exactly. But there is another way to get a sense of how their minds work. For years, have been fitting radio tags to these giants to track from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration these animals fine-tune the paths of their epic migrations to track the historical abundances of krill—the tiny crustaceans that they eat. Rather than finding where their prey currently is, they go after the places where their prey was in years past. Their migrations, in other words, are guided by memory. So what happens in a world where memory might lead them astray?

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