By Bridget Altman
I recently started working as a naturalist on a whale watching boat in San Diego for San Diego Whale Watch. One of my favorite parts of this job is getting to talk to all the interesting passengers who come on board. They always ask a lot of really good questions, but one thought-provoking question stands out in particular: Do Whales Have Eyelashes?
My gut told me no. But then I thought back to all of the cartoon images of whales I’ve seen over the years. I could clearly visualize a “pretty” whale putting on her mascara in the mirror. The media does a great job of anthropomorphizing whales. Cetaceans (the collective scientific term for dolphins and whales) are highly intelligent creatures with very large brains. In fact, some prominent neuroscientists believe they are capable of making decisions based on emotions! We relate to these cetaceans because we feel we have some sort of connection with these smart, emotional beings. We personify them so much so that we have to second guess ourselves when thinking about what should be basic anatomy, a seemingly obvious answer to a seemingly simple question. So I began my quest for the truth.
What I found is this: whales DO NOT have eyelashes. Humans have eyelashes to keep dirt from flying from the air into our eyes. In addition to keeping debris from our eyes, they act as sensory hairs causing us to close our eyes if anything comes into contact with our luscious lashes. This protective reaction is useless underwater in the aqueous environment, as water is constantly moving in waves. Thus instead of eyelashes, dolphins and whales have thick, fatty eyelids and special tear ducts that produce mucous-like tears to protect their eyes.
Some say that their fatty eyelids may be the reason for the emotional connection we feel towards these animals. Their eyelids are so thick that it takes some effort to close their eyes. Even when they sleep they keep one eye open, as only half of their brain sleeps at a time (a phenomenon called unihemispheric sleeping). Since their eyes are almost always open, it appears they are looking directly at us, staring straight into our souls, making us feel like we are somehow connected to them.
So even though whales don’t actually have eyelashes, (and they probably aren’t putting on their makeup before they go out on a date), they have even more amazing adaptations making them suitable to survive in an environment us humans can only dream of living in.
Copyright © 2016 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.