First ever blue whale heart monitor shows massive creature is at natural limits

26 Nov 2019

The scientists waited for the blue whale to surface to attach the heart monitor. Image: MS Savoca/PA

For the first time, scientists have been able to measure the heart rate of the blue whale, revealing a treasure trove of new information.

The heart rate of the blue whale – the largest animal on Earth – has been recorded for the first time, scientists said. Researchers waited for the whale to surface before reaching out with a long pole to attach a non-invasive electrocardiogram to its skin.

Four suction cups secured the sensor-packed tag near the whale’s left flipper, where it recorded the heart rate through electrodes embedded in the centre of two of the suction feet.

Jeremy Goldbogen, assistant professor of biology in the School of Humanities Sciences at Stanford University and lead author of the paper, said: “We had no idea that this would work and we were sceptical even when we saw the initial data.

“With a very keen eye, Paul Ponganis – our collaborator from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography – found the first heart beats in the data.

“There were a lot of high fives and victory laps around the lab.”

Illustration of how the blue whale’s heart rate slowed and quickened as it dove.

Illustration of how the blue whale’s heart rate slowed and quickened as it dove. Image: Alex Boersma/PA

Pushed to the limit

Scientists said their analysis of the data suggests the blue whale’s heart is working at its limit, which may explain why the creatures have never evolved to be bigger. They said this may also help explain why no animal has ever been larger than a blue whale – because the energy needs of a larger body would outpace what the heart can sustain.

The research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sheds light on the extreme ranges of heart rates in blue whales during diving, feeding and surfacing. Blue whales slow their heart rate for deep dives but expend energy to lunge forward and engulf water for filtering and feeding.

Researchers monitored the heart rate of the whale along the surface of Monterey Bay during eight and a half hours of diving. Foraging dives lasted as long as 16.5 minutes and reached a maximum depth of 184 metres, whereas surface intervals were typically less than four minutes.

Heart rates during dives reached a minimum of two beats per minute, well below the predicted resting heart rate of 15 beats per minute, and surged to 2.5 times the minimum heart rate during lunge feeding. During surface intervals, the heart rate reached 37 beats per minute after very deep dives, near the blue whale’s maximum heart rate, as the whale worked to re-oxygenate its tissues.

Scientists said their results show how the circulatory system of whales adapts to accommodate diving and feeding.

Ten years ago, Goldbogen and Ponganis measured the heart rates of diving emperor penguins and for years wondered if they could do the same for whales.

Goldbogen said: “I honestly thought it was a long shot because we had to get so many things right – finding a blue whale, getting the tag in just the right location on the whale, good contact with the whale’s skin and, of course, making sure the tag is working and recording data.”

– PA Media