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Wednesday June 19th, 2024

Sri Lanka’s blue whale is a superb athlete. Is she also a scholar?


Thirty meters long. Up to 200 tons in weight. The biggest creature ever to live abounds on Sri Lanka’s porches. The elusive blue whale, twice the weight of the hugest known dinosaur, seems to like Lanka as much as anyone would.

This past decade has established Sri Lanka as one of the world’s premier locales for seeing and studying blues. Beneath shallow waters outward from Lankan shores lies continental shelf: a gently sloping sea floor stretching to an edge where the bottom drops steeply into the deep. Blues enjoy cruising deepening waters at shelf edges.

They find lots to eat there and they may use the shelf edges in navigating. The southernmost wedge of the Indian (sub)continental shelf happens to ‘pinch in’ close to the Lankan shore at Mirissa in the south, precisely where blues migrating back and forth between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal find their shortest route.

Blues feed almost exclusively on krill, thumbnail-size crustaceans which swarm in huge orange clouds. Krill feed on microscopic plants (phytoplankton) or on microscopic animals (zooplankton) grazing on those phytoplankton.

The richest krill blooms arise in chilly northern and southern waters where phytoplankton and zooplankton thrive best because cold seas hold more nutrients needed for phytoplankton photosynthesis than tropical seas do. Sri Lanka sits in tropical seas of course, so if blues are finding krill here, something quite unusual might be happening.

One explanation could be a tropically-rare abundance of nutrients in Lankan waters, due to its steep topography and monsoon rainfall. Some one hundred rivers and streams flush from Sri Lanka’s land surface into its surrounding ocean. Nutrients gush downward and outward into the nearby seas. Teensy plants synthesize the organic slurry with sunlight so that krill can eat their fill and blues dine in style.

Why is blue so huge? Earth’s largest animal must necessarily be aquatic and must eat low on the food chain. The heaviest animals need to be aquatic because water provides buoyancy helping hold up weight. The largest terrestrial dinosaur was roughly the same length as blue whales but only half their weight.

Animals as heavy as blues would collapse as land-dwellers or be too sluggish to move. The demand on legs to hold up and move land animals constrains their maximum weight. At sea, water’s buoyant force presses upward to counteract gravity, keeping aquatic creatures from simply falling to the bottom of the sea. No legs required.

The next point is that on land the largest plant-eaters are invariably bigger than the largest carnivores. This was true in the age of dinosaurs—veggie Dreadnoughtus shrani outweighed meat-shredding Spinosaurus eightfold–and it remains true today: elephants are way heftier than grizzly bears.

Why don’t carnivores ever reach the size of the largest herbivores? Top predators face constraints on size that herbivores avoid in accord with what’s called the Second Law of Thermodynamics as it operates in food chains (what eats what).

Sunlight furnishes essentially all energy available to life on earth for biomass construction and metabolism. Plants convert solar energy into plant stuff, which herbivores eat and convert into herbivore stuff.

Primary carnivores convert herbivore stuff into carnivore stuff and top predators do likewise with both large herbivores and lower-level carnivores. Food chains are therefore sequences of converting energy to mass, mass to energy again, energy again back to mass and so on.

The Second Law tells us that with each such conversion or transformation, much of the input energy will be lost or dissipated into what could be considered non-usable waste (actually heat). This means that at successively higher food chain levels (‘trophic levels’ biologists call them) the total energy available to support biomass and metabolism progressively dwindles.

Estimates hold that only 10% of the energy biologically embodied at any trophic level makes it through to get embodied at the next level upward. This means that the total energy available to species at the top of a typical food chain may be only 1/10,000th of that for herbivores grazing on plants at the base of the chain.

This in turn means that top predator species operate within far tighter energy budgets than herbivores do. Their constricted energy budget effectively limits carnivore size. If they grew larger, they would have to shrink their population numbers to stay within their available energy budget.

With shrinking numbers, finding mates for reproducing becomes increasingly difficult. The blue whale is a carnivore, to be sure, but not a top predator in the sense of hunting and eating large animals.

Blues are grazers–honorary herbivores–rather than hunters like typical large carnivores. They are only two steps up the food chain, as opposed to five or so for top predators. Fueled by massive ingestions of krill, blue whale energy budgets can sustain gigantic size without undue curtailment in population numbers or activity levels.

A typical blue feeding dive is a marvel. Strokes from powerful flukes power her downward against her own buoyancy through the first 25 meters. As she descends, pressure from the water above forces her flexible rib cage inward, decreasing her volume and increasing her density so that her buoyancy dissipates and she begins to fall rapidly with gravity toward the sea bed. She turns and heaves herself upward in a strenuous ‘lunge’ through krill blooms, fighting not only gravity but also the huge hydrodynamic drag created by her own gaping jaws.

After a few seconds, she shudders to a halt, having gulped maybe sixty tons of seawater into her ventral pouch. With a gelatinous tongue the weight of an elephant, she spews the water out through her baleen—cartilegenous venetian-blind-like sieves that line her mouth instead of teeth—retaining thousands upon thousands of krill then to swallow.

She does this all again and then again in a handful of successive lunges back toward the surface, holding her breath all the while of course. Her enormous krill binges furnish massive energy but also require huge energy outlays. Some marine biologists suggest that increasing blue size would actually decrease her energy yield per kilogram of body weight from lunging. Pushing the extra weight around would not yield enough extra krill to match the extra energy expenditure.

This means that blue is not only the largest animal ever to live on our beautiful planet but probably the largest that ever could. OK, but how smart is she? Certain items suggest she may not be at the top of her class among cetaceans.

A stepdown in smarts may go with the same factor that enables blue’s huge size: her grazing lifestyle. High-IQ cetaceans like orcas (killer whales), sperm whales and bottlenose dolphins all live by the hunt.

Bottlenoses and orcas collaborate amongst themselves in intricate prey-snatching tactics, while sperm whales team up for either joint or sequential hunting dives and also maintain complex networks of reciprocity in cooperative calf care and raising, requiring feats of memory and social maneuver.

Unlike these highly convivial hunters, blues do not seem to spend much time socializing in clusters. Many studies of animal intelligence emphasize congregation, communication and cooperation: bottlenoses, orcas and sperm whales all rank high on these metrics. Social learning appears to thrive where life circumstances fluctuate just enough so that conveyance of knowledge and experience is useful.

Oceanic predation seems to fit this bill nicely. Blues, by contrast, appear far less social, with simple mother-and-calf duos as their most common social formation. Lunge feeding through balls of krill does not at first glance seem to require much cooperation or brainpower. All these considerations suggest that blues may be a bit IQ-challenged, at least compared with the brainiest whales and dolphins.

Lest we be too hasty in attributing low wattage to blues’ brains, however, recall that elephants exhibit remarkable intelligence, despite their grazing lifestyle. Several items suggest that blues may not be as dumb as they look, even among cetaceans. First, blue brains are large, very large indeed.

A dominant school of thought is that species intelligence correlates mainly with brain-to-body size ratio (BBR). Humans have a higher BBR than any other animal except one: voila, we are super smart! Blues pack big brains to be sure, but with immense body size their BBR drops down, with their smarts perhaps dwindling in turn.

Another school of thought, however, is that intelligence corresponds also with absolute brain size, not just BBR. A tiny shrew exceeds humans in BBR but no one is nominating her for valedictorian. Sheer brain size means more neurons, more pathways, more flexibility, more capacity.

From this viewpoint, blues stand to rank high in intelligence, with the second biggest brain on the planet, exceeded only by sperm whales. And there may be more social learning in lunge feeding than there seems to be. First, there is being in the right place at the right time for krill blooms.

Blooms arise now and then, here and there, due to complex fluctuations in water temperature, nutrient supply, ocean topography, waves, currents, tides, competitive predation and so on. Blues need to know this stuff and they can learn it only from other blues: complex social transmission of knowledge may be needed.

Social learning may also apply to avoiding orcas, the only predators blues normally need to worry about. Moreover, because lunge feeding tends to scatter krill balls temporarily, blues at a krill ball site may need to coordinate so that all may feed: either lunge in unison or lunge sequentially so that feeding chances get shared.

Such complex social consideration and coordination could both require and reward sophisticated intelligence. Then there is this. Blues emit extremely loud moans so low in frequency as to be largely inaudible to the unaided human ear. These songs probably come only from males and likely play a role in locating or attracting mates. It appears plausible that blues hear each other calling for hundreds if not thousands of miles, perhaps across entire ocean basins.

This means they could be ‘in touch’ with one another far more intensively than would seem to be the case from the fact that they do not seem to ‘cluster’ that much. Blues subsist in eleven relatively distinct population groups spread across the world’s oceans. Each has a singing style common to all members but slightly different from that of other populations.

Recordings reveal the startling fact that the sound pitch of blue songs across all populations has dropped just a bit every year for the past thirty years, as long as we have been listening. Populations must be following one another’s songs so that they all move in the same direction: slightly lower year by year.

Biologists understand ‘sexual selection’ as a process whereby females mysteriously and almost arbitrarily find certain male displays sexy. Masters of such display mate more successfully and pass genes producing those displays (e.g., peacock feathers) on to their sons, who themselves mate successfully in turn.

But the blue whale pitch shift cannot be an example of genetically-propagated sexual selection. It affects entire populations—indeed the entire species—year by year: far too fast to be genetic and generational. So we have males all changing their song display in uniform ways to keep up with what females for some reason deem sexy. I’m not sure whether this counts as a sign of high intelligence but I think I know what to call it: fashion.

(From the archives of Echelon magazine; published in September 2016)

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Central banks expect to increase gold reserves after buying 1,037 tonnes in 2023: Survey

ECONOMYNEXT – About 29 percent of central banks in the world intended to increase their gold reserves in 2023, up from 24 percent in 2023 and just 8 percent in 2019, a survey by the World Gold Council showed.

“The planned purchases are chiefly motivated by a desire to rebalance to a more preferred strategic level of gold holdings, domestic gold production, and financial market concerns including higher crisis risks and rising inflation,” the WGC said.

About 81 percent of 70 central banks that responded to the survey expected global central bank holdings of gold to go up, from 71 percent in 2023.

While in prior years, gold’s “historical position” was the top reason for central banks to hold gold, this factor dropped significantly to number five this year.

This year, the top reason for central banks to hold gold is “long-term store of value / inflation hedge” (88%), followed by “performance during times of crisis” (82%), “effective portfolio diversifier” (75%) and “no default risk” (72%).

Concerns about sanctions were listed as by 23 percent of emerging market central banks (0 advanced).

De-dollarization as a reason to hold gold gained ground, but was not among the main reasons.

About 13 percent of emerging market central banks listed de-dollarization as one of the reasons to buy gold up from 11 percent last year and 6 advanced nations said the same from zero last year.

Around 49 percent of central banks expected gold reserves to be moderately lower five year from now in the 2024 survey, against 49 percent in 2023 and 38 percent in 2022.

About 13 percent of central banks surveyed said US dollar reserves would be significantly lower in the 2024 survey, up from 5 percent in 2023 and 4 percent in 2022. (Colombo/June18/2024)

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Sri Lanka rupee closes weaker at 304.75/305.40 to US dollar

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s rupee closed weaker at 304.75/305.40 to the US dollar Tuesday, down from 304.15 to the US dollar Friday, dealer said, while some bond yields edged up.

Sri Lanka’s rupee has weakened amid unsterilized excess liquidity from earlier dollar purchases.

Excess liquidity fell from as high as 200 billion rupees, helped by some sales of maturing bills and also allowing some term contracts to run out.

However the central bank has started to inject liquidity again below its policy rate to suppress interest rates.

On Tuesday 30 billion rupees was printed overnight at an average yield of only 8.73 percent.

Separately another 25 billion rupees was printed till June 25 at 8.09 percent to 9.05 percent, which was still below overnight the policy rate of 9.5 percent.

Nobody has so far taken the central bank to court for printing money beyond overnight at rates lower than the overnight rate.

Sri Lanka operates an ad hoc exchange rate regime called ‘flexible exchange rate’ which triggers panic among market participants, as the central bank stays away when spikes in credit either creates import demand or unsterilized credit is used up.

“If large volumes of unsterilized liquidity is left, the exchange rate has to be closely defended to prevent speculation involving early covering of import bills and late selling of exports proceeds,” EN’s economic columnist Bellwether says.

“Just as an appreciating or stable exchange rate leads to late covering of import bills, a falling rates leads to immediate covering of import bills.

“Keeping exchange rates stable is a relatively simple exercise but it is difficult to do so if short term rates are also closely targeted with printed money, as liquidity runs out, as if the country had a free float and no reserve target.”

“When there is a large volume of excess liquidity remaining (except those voluntary deposited for long periods by risk averse banks) the the interest rates structure is under-stated compared to the reported reserves.

“Interest rates would be a little higher than seen in the market if the liquidity was mopped up and domestic credit and imports were blocked to prevent the reserves from being used up.”

In East Asia there is greater knowledge of central bank operational frameworks, though International Monetary Fund driven flawed doctrine are also threatening the monetary stability of those countries, critics say.


Vietnam selling SBV bills to stabilize the Dong, as Sri Lanka rupee also weakens

Sri Lanka’s rupee started to collapse steeply after the IMF’s Second Amendment in 1978 along with many other countries as flawed operational frameworks gained ground without a credible anchor.

A bond maturing on 15.12.2026 closed at 10.10/30 percent up from 10.05/30 percent Friday.

A bond maturing on 15.10.2027 closed at 10.60/57 flat from 10.60/80 percent.

A bond maturing on 01.07.2028 closed at 11.15/35 percent, up from 11.05/20 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.09.2029 closed at 11.80/90 percent unchanged.

A bond maturing on 15.10.2030 closed at 11.90/12.00 percent.

A maturing on 10.12.2031 closed at 11.95/12.10 percent.

A bond maturing on 01.10.2032 closed at down at 11.95/12.10 percent, down from 12.00/10 percent. (Colombo/Jun14/2024)

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Sri Lanka’s Ceylon Chamber links up with Gujarat Chamber

ECONOMYNEXT – The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce has signed an agreement with the Southern Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SGCCI) to increase trade cooperation between India and Sri Lanka.

The MOU was signed by CCC CEO Buwanekabahu Perera, SGCCI President Ramesh Vaghasia, in the presence of Dr Valsan Vethody, Consul General for Sri Lanka in Mumbai, India.

“With the signing of the MoU, … the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and SGCCI aim to facilitate trade between the two countries via initiatives such as trade fairs and delegations, business networking events, training programmes,” the Ceylon Chamber said in a statement.

“This partnership will open doors for Sri Lankan businesses to explore opportunities in Surat’s dynamic market and enable the sharing of expertise and resources between the two regions.”

Established in 1940, SGCCI engages with over 12,000 members and indirect ties with more than 2,00,000 members via 150 associations. It promotes trade, commerce, and industry in South Gujarat.

The region’s commercial and economic centre Surat has risen to prominence as the global epicenter for diamond cutting and as India’s textile hub, and is ranked the world’s 4th fastest growing city with a GDP growth rate of 11.5%

Surat’s economic landscape is vibrant and diverse. As India’s 8th largest and Gujarat’s 2nd largest city, it boasts the highest average annual household income in the country.

The nearby Hazira Industrial Area hosts major corporations like Reliance, ESSAR, SHELL, and L&T. (Colombo/Jun18/2024)

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