We Homo sapiens have done pretty well for ourselves. We’ve built entire civilizations, harnessing the resources of our planet to make suitable homes for ourselves in parts of the world that seemed inhospitable. We’ve figured out how to fight off infections and overcome many inherited illnesses. We can visit nearly any part of the world with relative ease, and are even beginning to explore the universe outside Earth’s cozy atmosphere. We’ve made it to the top of the food chain.
In doing so, we’ve intentionally put distance between ourselves and most other animals. In some ways, that’s a good thing. But it also means we often don’t appreciate how incredible those other species are.
Behold: the largest creature ever to grace the Earth, the blue whale. At roughly the size of 10 elephants, their magnitude is difficult for us to comprehend, especially since most humans will never get to see these rare ocean-dwelling creatures up close.
Blue whales are the largest members of rorqual whale family, which in turn are the largest of the baleen whale order. In fact, scientists believe they are the biggest animal to have ever existed on the planet. They might also be the biggest animal physically possible. We’re about as big to them as krill—blue whales’ primary source of food—are to us.
To start, it helps to live in water: Living in the ocean means gravity doesn’t pull on a mammal’s bones the way it would if they lived on land. But there are still physical limitations to how big a sea creature can get.
Blue whales dine on up to 8,000 pounds of krill a day, which requires taking in living-room sized gulps of water, which they filter through dense, keratin bristles that line their mouths. All that water generates an incredible amount of drag, which exerts its force on the whale’s jaws—a blue whale exerts roughly 1,000 calories each time they take a gulp. That’s why blue whales have giant mouths, comprising about 25% of their bodies. But their mouths can’t get any bigger, according to Nick Pyenson, a Smithsonian Institution paleobiologist and author of Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of the Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures. Because if the whales took in any more water, the drag would prevent them from being able to actually close their mouths. Unbearable drag happens when a whale’s mouth is larger than about 27 ft long—or a quarter of 109 ft, the largest whales ever recorded.
Blue whales aren’t just big. Humans might seem dominant right now, but Homo sapiens have only been around for some 300,000 years. Blue whales are believed to have existed since as much as 10.5 million years ago. Their lifespan is estimated to be some 80-110 years, but there’s evidence that some whales have lived for more than two centuries—all without vaccines, antibiotics, or organic avocados.
The scale on which whales live is so much larger than our own. It’s like they’ve come to know an entirely different Earth. It’s an awesome feeling, knowing that as much as we’ve learned about our home, we aren’t the only authority—if we’re really one at all. There’s a certain freedom knowing that even though we’ve tried, we’ve got nothing on the giants of the Earth.
Or the smaller animals of the planet.
If creatures that have reached the upper limits of size don’t impress you, consider their source of fuel: the krill. It’s easy to forget that these pinky-sized sea creatures even exist, because they are relatively useless to humans. We’ve tried to find ways to use krill as a food source, but have mostly failed due the crustaceans’ peculiar biology. For one, their bodies carry levels of fluoride toxic to humans. For another, krill swim and eat constantly, consuming 20% of their weight daily in tiny bites of both plants and animals. To do so, krill have evolved the ability to create digestive juices so potent that as soon as they die, their bodies start devouring themselves. Without proper storage, within hours of being caught, these digestive juices turn on the krill, and the creature becomes turn black and inedible.
So most of us have no reason to think about either these tiny krill. But doing so can be humbling, in a good way. They may be the most abundant creatures on Earth by biomass, according to Stephen Nicol in The Curious Life of Krill. Although small, krill sometimes travel in swarms so huge and dense they can be seen from space.
Think about that: the thing we humans have ever built that can be seen from space is the Great Wall of China. Krill, just by being alive, more than match that feat of civilization.
It’s easy to think of ourselves as the center of the universe. Humans managed to dominate—for better or worse—the resources on Earth, despite making up such a small percentage of life here. That can create an overwhelming, and perhaps unwarranted, sense of individual responsibility. The reality though, is the failures and foibles of any individual human will probably be inconsequential to the course of the planet. And that also means there’s no Earth-shattering ramifications for not succeeding, so there’s no reason not to take chances.
And consider how little we actually know about our own planet: despite their prevalence we actually don’t know much about krill. Though there are 85 krill species, we’re only truly familiar with one, the Antarctic krill, who live in frigid waters off the coast of the least-explored continent on the planet. The other species are even smaller than the Antarctic krill, and live in even harder-for-humans-to-reach parts of the ocean.
The fact that there is so much we don’t know about our incredible animal neighbors makes it all the more impressive that we’ve dominated Earth. In a way, it seems less like a testament to our prowess as a species, and more like luck. For that, we should be humbled: Although we certainly are capable of incredible feats, we’re not the only ones. And we definitely don’t matter the most of all life on this planet.
There’s a certain liberation in recognizing our limits. We’ll never truly be able to know the nature of krill or whales, or how they experience the world, and that’s okay. Recognizing that there are some things we’ll never understand or conquer takes the pressure off us to do so. We can instead just enjoy the fact that there are some forms of life out there that are truly awesome.