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  1. The largest animals are the rorquals, a group of whales which rapidly engulf large aggregations of small-bodied animals along with the water in which they are embedded, with the latter subsequently expulsed via filtration through baleen. Represented by species like the blue, fin, and humpback whales, rorquals can exist in a wide range of body lengths (8–30 m) and masses (4000–190,000 kg). When feeding on krill, kinematic data collected by whale-borne biologging sensors suggest that they first oscillate their flukes several times to accelerate towards their prey, followed by a coasting period with mouth agape as the prey-water mixture ismore »engulfed in a process approximating a perfectly inelastic collision. These kinematic data, used along with momentum conservation and time-averages of a whale’s equation of motion, show the largest rorquals as generating significant body forces (10–40 kN) in order to set into forward motion enough engulfed water to at least double overall mass. Interestingly, a scaling analysis of these equations suggests significant reductions in the amount of body force generated per kilogram of body mass at the larger sizes. In other words, and in concert with the allometric growth of the buccal cavity, gigantism would involve smaller fractions of muscle mass to engulf greater volumes of water and prey, thereby imparting a greater efficiency to this unique feeding strategy.« less
  2. The considerable power needed for large whales to leap out of the water may represent the single most expensive burst maneuver found in nature. However, the mechanics and energetic costs associated with the breaching behaviors of large whales remain poorly understood. In this study we deployed whale-borne tags to measure the kinematics of breaching to test the hypothesis that these spectacular aerial displays are metabolically expensive. We found that breaching whales use variable underwater trajectories, and that high-emergence breaches are faster and require more energy than predatory lunges. The most expensive breaches approach the upper limits of vertebrate muscle performance,more »and the energetic cost of breaching is high enough that repeated breaching events may serve as honest signaling of body condition. Furthermore, the confluence of muscle contractile properties, hydrodynamics, and the high speeds required likely impose an upper limit to the body size and effectiveness of breaching whales.« less
  3. The unique engulfment filtration strategy of microphagous rorqual whales has evolved relatively recently (<5 Ma) and exploits extreme predator/prey size ratios to overcome the maneuverability advantages of swarms of small prey, such as krill. Forage fish, in contrast, have been engaged in evolutionary arms races with their predators for more than 100 million years and have performance capabilities that suggest they should easily evade whale-sized predators, yet they are regularly hunted by some species of rorqual whales. To explore this phenomenon, we determined, in a laboratory setting, when individual anchovies initiated escape from virtually approaching whales, then used these resultsmore »along with in situ humpback whale attack data to model how predator speed and engulfment timing affected capture rates. Anchovies were found to respond to approaching visual looming stimuli at expansion rates that give ample chance to escape from a sea lion-sized predator, but humpback whales could capture as much as 30–60% of a school at once because the increase in their apparent (visual) size does not cross their prey’s response threshold until after rapid jaw expansion. Humpback whales are, thus, incentivized to delay engulfment until they are very close to a prey school, even if this results in higher hydrodynamic drag. This potential exaptation of a microphagous filter feeding strategy for fish foraging enables humpback whales to achieve 7× the energetic efficiency (per lunge) of krill foraging, allowing for flexible foraging strategies that may underlie their ecological success in fluctuating oceanic conditions.

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  4. The largest animals are marine filter feeders, but the underlying mechanism of their large size remains unexplained. We measured feeding performance and prey quality to demonstrate how whale gigantism is driven by the interplay of prey abundance and harvesting mechanisms that increase prey capture rates and energy intake. The foraging efficiency of toothed whales that feed on single prey is constrained by the abundance of large prey, whereas filter-feeding baleen whales seasonally exploit vast swarms of small prey at high efficiencies. Given temporally and spatially aggregated prey, filter feeding provides an evolutionary pathway to extremes in body size that aremore »not available to lineages that must feed on one prey at a time. Maximum size in filter feeders is likely constrained by prey availability across space and time.« less
  5. The largest animals are baleen filter feeders that exploit large aggregations of small-bodied plankton. Although this feeding mechanism has evolved multiple times in marine vertebrates, rorqual whales exhibit a distinct lunge filter feeding mode that requires extreme physiological adaptations—most of which remain poorly understood. Here, we review the biomechanics of the lunge feeding mechanism in rorqual whales that underlies their extraordinary foraging performance and gigantic body size.