"A lungful of air is like a multifunction toolkit for humpback whales."
"On a breezy winter day in Hawai‘i, a team of researchers from Whale Trust Maui watched as a group of humpback whales cavorted around their boat. The wind-rippled ocean surface distorted the view through the ocean–air interface, but one whale repeatedly swished its fins at the surface to produce a vortex that flattened the chop, creating a smooth spot where it placed its eye to look up at the scientists. Photographer and researcher Flip Nicklin, having never seen vortices used in this way, dubbed them “whale windows.” At the end of the encounter, the whale used a different method to construct the window—it blew a perfect air ring from its blowhole, much like a smoker puffs a smoke ring, which again smoothed the surface. Then, as before, the whale turned its head and looked up, meeting the researcher’s eye. Was the whale using a bubble as a tool?
When primatologist Jane Goodall informed her mentor, anthropologist Louis Leakey, that she had observed a chimpanzee utilizing grass blades to extract termites from their mounds, he famously replied “now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as human.” Prior to Goodall’s 1960 observation, tool use had been considered a sharp line demarcating humans from animals. Since that time, reports have emerged of tool use by birds, fish, reptiles, insects, crustaceans, cephalopods, and mammals, including dolphins and whales.
Just what defines a tool has nuance, but it’s generally agreed that it is a physical object other than the animal’s own body that is manipulated or oriented to affect something in the animal’s environment. Studies over the past few decades suggest that water, like a spitting archerfish’s jet of water, and air, like a humpback’s bubbles, can be tools, too."
Doug Perrine reports with photos for Hakai magazine December 20, 2022.