Ancient mythical sea monsters were based on a real whale feeding technique

Trap-feeding humpback whale
Trap-feeding humpback whale. Screenshot.

Humpback, minke and some baleen whales engage in trap feeding otherwise known as tread-water feeding. Fables recorded in ancient tales of sea monsters are likely to be based upon this feeding technique.

More than 2,200 years ago, Greek scholars described how an enormous predator, so big that they looked like an island, lured prey into their jaws by emitting a strange scent. They called the creature the “aspidochelone”.

The Vikings described a similar beast in 13th century manuscripts. They called the creature the “hafgufa”. They described how shoals of fish leapt into its immense mouth.

A study claims that these fables were inspired by this feeding technique which was first recorded in 2011 by modern humankind. It is interesting that the ancients of 2,000 years ago had noticed the technique and recorded it themselves.

Whale monster from ancient times the hafgufa
Whale monster from ancient times the hafgufa. Image: left in the public domain. Right: The Times.

Whale trap feeding – a description by an AI computer ‘ChatGPT’

Trap feeding (also known as gulp feeding) is a feeding strategy used by some baleen whales, such as humpback whales and minke whales. It involves the whale swimming with its mouth open and taking in a large volume of water along with the prey (usually small fish or krill) that is present in the water. The whale then closes its mouth and pushes the water out through the baleen plates that hang from the roof of its mouth, trapping the prey inside the baleen. The whale then uses its tongue to scrape the prey off the baleen and swallow it.

Whale about to trap-feed (painting)
Whale about to trap-feed. A painting by DALL-E.

Tread-water feeding, also known as skim feeding or lunge feeding, is a similar feeding strategy used by some whales, such as blue whales and fin whales. It involves the whale swimming rapidly towards a group of prey while opening its mouth wide. The whale then uses its tongue to push the water out of its mouth and through the baleen plates, trapping the prey inside. The whale then swallows the trapped prey and repeats the process.

Both trap feeding and tread-water feeding are efficient ways for whales to consume large amounts of small prey quickly.



The description by the ancients of the monster attracting prey by emitting a strange smell is thought to be based upon the rotten cabbage smell of dimethyl sulphide, a chemical released in small fish feed on phytoplankton. This is the perfume that is referred to in the ancient documents.

John McCarthy – maritime archaeologist

John McCarthy, a maritime archaeologist at Flinders University in Australia, was the first to notice the similarity between the Norse tales and trap feeding.

Erin Sebo of the same university said:

“There has been a lot of speculation among scientists about whether these [ancient accounts of monsters] might have been provoked by natural phenomena, such as optical illusions or underwater volcanoes. In fact, the behaviour described in mediaeval texts, which seems so unlikely, is simply whale behaviour that we had not observed but mediaeval and ancient people had.”

It is interesting to note that this feeding strategy had gone unobserved by modern scientists and observers for so long. But perhaps technology has made it easier to observe whale behaviour. Also, there has been a resurgence in whale numbers because of the ban on hunting which as allowed people to observe Wales more frequently and pick up on this specialised hunting technique. And because of increased numbers there is greater competition between whales which has encouraged the use of this technique.

Increased numbers have also resulted in whales fighting over females rather than calling for them over long distances.

Humpback whales fight rather than sing to find their mate

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