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When Dead Whales Are Good Whales

from Nautilus

Humans Are Overzealous Whale Morticians

We hastily dispose of dead whales, ignoring the ecological significance of their carcasses


When, at the dawn of the 19th century, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traversed western North America, they encountered a wondrous bestiary: the “fleet and delicately formed” coyote, the “bear of enormous size” which we call the grizzly. Yet few creatures impressed them more than the “Buzzard or Vulture” their party captured near the mouth of the Columbia River. The bird was massive, more than nine feet from wingtip to wingtip, and garish, with an “iris of a pale scarlet,” a “pale orrange [sic] Yellow” head, and feathers of “Glossy Shineing black.” Just as striking was the bird’s diet. “(W)e have Seen it feeding on the remains of the whale and other fish which have been thrown up by the waves on the Sea Coast,” Clark reported. Marine creatures, he added, “constitute their principal food.”

That Lewis and Clark first encountered a California condor by the sea was no coincidence. Once, condors soared across much of the continent, merrily scavenging dead ground sloths, mammoths, and glyptodonts. When human hunters wiped out these giant herbivores during the Pleistocene, condors nearly went extinct themselves. But they never quite vanished. Instead, they survived along the Pacific Coast, feasting on the last megafauna carcasses still available: marine mammals, particularly the blue, humpback, and gray whales who migrate along North America’s western rim.1 That we know Gymnogyps californianus as the California condor—as opposed to, say, the Kansas condor—is the nomenclatural legacy of dead cetaceans.

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Posted on August 11, 2022 by Editor

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