Digging around inside nature’s giants

Credit: Windfall/Richard Taylor/Jones

A sperm whale’s penis has no bones. This allows its flexible member to penetrate a female sperm whale from any number of directions; a necessity when two multi-ton animals are trying to line up tab A with slot B in an unsteady ocean environment.

This and other interesting facts about sperm whales are the subject of the first episode of the documentary series Inside Nature’s Giants, which premiers in the U.S. on January 18th. Each of the series’ four episodes centers around the dissection of a large animal, which is used as a starting point to explore the animal’s biology. (A clever device, which I also used in this Scientific American video about jumbo squid.)

In episode one the ‘dissectee’ is a deceased sperm whale that has washed ashore on England’s east coast. Comparative anatomist Joy Reidenberg of Mount Sinai Hospital leads the dissection, sawing through blubber in one shot, enthusiastically explaining whale anatomy in the next. Of course, taking apart a sperm whale is no simple task and Reidenberg’s team must employ large carving knives, chainsaws and even construction equipment to peel back the successive layers of its anatomy. The goal, Reidenberg states, is to determine the cause of the whale”s death. It seems like the goal is more likely an interesting television show.

The gory spectacle of the whale dissection is punctuated by live footage of sperm whales and beautifully-rendered 3-D animations that give a clearer view of the whale’s internal anatomy minus the blood and guts. Occasionally, the film segues to scenes of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in London’s Natural History museum where he talks about the sperm whale’s evolution. These scenes felt a bit perfunctory (ie shoe-horned in) and were not very elucidating. Dawkins, while brilliant and charismatic as usual, isn’t a whale expert.

Future episodes will include the dissection of a python, great white shark, and lion, airing at 10 pm ET on PBS  January 25th, February 2nd, and February 8th respectively. The Inside Nature’s Giants series was produced by London-based Windfall Films in conjunction with Channel 4.