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Guest Post by Paul Nicklen | From Wolves to Whales

Paul Nicklen Blog Post Picture
May 18, 2023

This is a guest post by WWSG thought leader, Paul Nicklen.

Are we witnessing the next big chapter in evolution?

“From so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

– Charles Darwin

I have a question for you; what do a 16-ft baby whale and an 8-pound wolf puppy have in common?

Long before I chose to become a conservation photographer, the answer to that question would have required me to pause and think. However, after years of photographing British Columbia’s coastal wolves, a unique population adapted to living off marine life, and spending time with our ocean’s cetaceans, countless similarities now spring to mind: hunting methods, social complexities, and how each animal communicates. You only have to spend a little time with each species to spot the resemblances between them, especially when they are young.

Like all placental mammals, wolves and whales are both warm-blooded animals who give birth and nurse their babies after a long gestation period. Wolf pups are incredibly playful and rely on the protection and care of their mothers as they develop crucial survival skills. I am lucky enough to have spent many hours watching sea wolf puppies wrestle with each other, while mom headed out to forage along the intertidal zone. Those hours of playtime are vital to developing cooperative social skills while honing their ability to stalk, pounce, and catch prey. When I had the opportunity to meet a sperm whale calf and her mother, I found that baby whales have more in common with wolf pups than you might think.

Much like wolf pups, baby whales love to play as they learn critical survival lessons from their ever-watchful mothers. Unlike wolves, however, whales tend to only have one calf with the occasional set of twins. Instead of playing with siblings, the calves play with mom and anything of interest in their environment. When I headed to Dominica to photograph a mother sperm whale and her young daughter “Ariel,”  I became that object of interest.

At first, baby Ariel was well-behaved, and I was able to shoot a few good frames of her and her mom dozing together in the water column. However, it was not long before the calf grew bored and curious about the new visitor in her ocean. She made a beeline for me, and before I knew it, I had become a baby sperm whale’s new favorite chew toy. She mouthed my camera and chased me around the surface while her mom appeared to appreciate the free babysitting. The experience was not unlike meeting a playful and mischievous 15,000-pound puppy.

Ariel Whale by Paul Nicklen
Ariel | Dominica, 2019 | Ariel had me doubled over laughing while she mouthed my camera and playfully chased me around.
It may seem like a stretch to compare Ariel to a wolf puppy, but when you consider her early ancestors, it suddenly makes a little more sense. If you look back some tens of millions of years ago, you will find a strange, prehistoric creature hunting along the banks of ancient rivers in what is now Pakistan. This dog-sized animal traveled on four legs and had the unique ability to hear prey even underwater–despite being a subpar swimmer. If I told you this was the early ancestor of today’s gray wolves, you would probably believe me–and we would both be wrong. The animal in question hails from the now-extinct family of Pakicetidae, one of the earliest known cetaceans.

Over the course of millions of years, the land-dwelling Pakicetus and its kin would begin to hunt deeper beneath the surface, eventually giving rise to new animals better adapted to the sea. These new creatures swam like otters, waddled on land like sea lions, and hunted like crocodiles with longer snouts and specially-designed inner ears. From there, the steady evolution of cetaceans would branch into today’s baleen and toothed whales–like Ariel and her mother.

Given the history of how whales evolved and the fascinating culture of British Columbia’s sea wolves, could we possibly be witnessing the early stages of Earth’s next evolutionary wonder? Sea wolves have long baffled biologists after becoming the only known wolves to adopt a diet primarily of fish. They seem, in a way, determined to evolve fins–and perhaps that is exactly what we are witnessing. Maybe someday they too will become more streamlined, develop longer snouts, and adapt an inner ear that resembles the one found in animals like sperm whales.

When I think of the infinite evolutionary possibilities stretching before the species that exist today, I feel an immense sense of wonder at the complexity of life on Earth. At the same time, it is heart-wrenching to think of the species that have already been erased at our hands, their legacies snuffed out in a span of decades. I want nothing more than to preserve the homes and ecosystems of animals like Ariel and help protect whatever incredible story nature is currently writing for the next chapter of life on Earth.

The species and ecosystems we have today took billions of years to manifest and their stories are far from over–let’s do right by nature and protect their legacies.

With Gratitude,

Paul Nicklen

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