Baleen whales include the largest animals that currently and historically have ever lived on Earth. These whales filter-feed on small-bodied prey using baleen plates rather than teeth. These plates are made of keratin (like fingernails) tubules, which fray on the inside and create a dense fibrous mat of bristles, or fringe. Baleen plates are arranged in “racks”, which line the inside of the animal’s mouth on each side. The morphology of both the baleen plates and bristles vary between species.Baleen whales present a classic conundrum in biology: the largest animals on earth support themselves on tiny organisms. However, the hydrodynamics that support baleen filter-feeding are almost entirely unknown. Does baleen act like a spaghetti colander, or a coffee filter? Do the bristles act like a filter, separating fish and krill from seawater? Or is there a more complex form of hydrodynamic filtration happening? Using museum specimens and baleen from stranded whales, I am 3D printing baleen plates to use in flow tank tests to discern the filtration mechanisms that allow massive whale body sizes to be supported.
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