Debate has swirled for nearly 200 years around whether sperm whales rammed whaling ships with their foreheads to sink them.
Scientists concluded that a part of a sperm whale’s head “evolved to function as a massive battering ram during male-male competition.” The idea has been “highly controversial” because skeptics say such collisions would damage sensitive organs inside the whale’s head, but in a press release, the researchers say connective tissue “may function as a shock absorber.” The researchers, who hail from Australia, the US, England, and Japan, didn’t determine whether the whales actually butt heads or ram boats, the Washington Post notes, only that they could—and live to fight another day.
Four incidents occurred between 1820 and 1902 in which sperm whales reportedly rammed whaling ships, according to Tech Times, and one of them inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. The sperm whale’s forehead—”one of the strangest structures in the animal kingdom,” per the study’s lead author—is home to what is called the spermaceti organ (which is filled with oil) and something called the junk sac. It has been established that the junk sac helps with echolocation. This new research, based on simulated whale crash tests, concludes that it can also be used as a weapon. The idea is further supported by the fact that the exterior of the junk is often scarred, per the study. “So there you have it, aspiring whalers,” the Post writes. “The Moby Dicks out there are well-prepared to take you on.”