The captivating pictures show adult sperm whales feasting on a rare* giant squid.The coolest part of this story is not that someone saw sperm whales eating a giant squid, but that these adults were teaching a calf how to eat giant squid. Training the next generation of ruthless squid predators.
How hard can it be to eat a giant squid, you may ask, especially with teeth like that? It's probably not that hard to eat it, but first you have to catch it. In the vast, dark depths of the ocean, where giant squid (understandably) prefer to lurk, that's no easy task. But how can you learn anything about hunting live squid in the deep from studying a dead squid in sunlit surface waters?
That's the beautiful part.
If you hunt by vision, your teacher shows you prey. (Look, baby eagle, it's a tasty trout.) If you hunt by olfaction, your teacher makes you smell it. (Scent, baby wolf, it's a delicious deer.) If you hunt by echolocation, your teacher has you listen to it. (Ping, baby whale, it's a scrumptious squid!)
Echolocating animals emit calls out to the environment and listen to the echoes of those calls that return from various objects in the environment. They use these echoes to locate, range, and identify the objects.I was on a research cruise in Mexico in 2007 where I got to watch our acoustic collaborators teach themselves how to recognize Humboldt squid. Of course, they were using complicated technology, not built-in biology like the whales, and their aim wasn't to be able to hunt and eat squid, but just to know where they are in order to describe their migratory behavior.
Acoustic researchers use the term "target strength" to describe the signal they get off a particular animal or group of animals. A school of herring has a distinctive target strength. A solitary Humboldt squid has one of its own (now precisely quantified, thanks to Kelly's 2007 research).
And a giant squid must have its own particular target strength, which Baby Sperm Whale has now learned to identify. So it can grow up to be a big scary predator just like mom!
* How rare could giant squid really be? Given that:
Researchers estimate that more than 110 million tons of squid may be consumed by the species every year.