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Project title or topic of activity

Whale Tails and Fingerprints

Author(s): Tara Streu

Date: Fall 1999


Summary of Activity
50-100 words

This activity has four parts, each taking up approximatly 15 minutes.

The first part of the activity will be giving students a general background on whales, how they are identified by researchers(specifically the humpback whale), and what problems are facing whale populations today. Here I will show parts of a video called "In the company of whales" which has short footage of many species of whales and then a five minute section about identifing humpback whales in the wild.

The second part of this activity will be hands on, allowing students to grasp the connection between whale tail markings and human fingerprints. Each student will be given a white paper shaped like a humpback's flukes. They will be asked to draw any pattern they wish, using crayons or markers provided. When they finish their drawing, they will be asked to tape them side by side on a large sheet of paper, already hanging up. The larger paper will have an empty space, in the same shape and size as the students' paper, for each person to place their drawing. There should be one space for each participating student. As they are hanging their drawings, they will be asked to place their fingerprint next to the tail fluke they drew. Ask students to look at all the tails and fingerprints side by side and tell what they are seeing. Students should see that each drawing is different, just like each persons fingerprint is unique. A humpback's tail patterns are like fingerprints. No whale has the exact same pattern, just like no human has the exact same fingerprint as another human.Each one is unique to the individual.

The last part of activity will allow the students to act as researchers studying humpback whales. Each student will be asked to take one laminated card out of basket. Each card will have a picture of an actual humpback whale fluke, photographed in the wild. The students will be asked to talk about what they see in their pictures and each others. How are they the same? How are they different? Ask students to work together to find the match to their tail. Each picture will have a duplicate to be matched up.This will give them an idea of what researchers have to do to find a specific group of whales already photograghed. Once students have successfully matched all the tails together, ask them some quesions about what they found difficult in doing this activity and what might researchers do to develop an easier way to ID individual humpback whales. Number each card and make a list of which cards match, in order to check the students. Following this activity, if there is time remaining, use this as a platform to talk to students about conservations and how they can help preserve these unique populations.


Grade levels

k-4, a class of 30

General description or introduction
The scientific principles that the activity is founded on.

Students will become curious about whales after receiving some interesting information and seeing some live footage of whales on the video. They will get to work as individuals as well as in a team to discover what it might be like to be a researcher. These activities will create a window for larger issues, like conservations to be taught. They will feel connected and be curious about how they can preserve ocean life.

Background information

The background information will be submitted in outline form so teachers may chose which topics they wish to focus on in greater detail.

WHALES-GENERAL INFORMATION a.Mammals-Whales give birth to live young, thermoregulate(keep their internal body temperatures stable as outside conditions vary), have mammary glands, and hair. b.Whales are part of a group called the Cetaceans. This group includes whales, porpoises, and dolphins.Most have a muscular tail with flukes, blubber for warmth and buoyancy, and used by man for items like oil and soap. They breath with lungs and use a blow hole with either one or two openings to breath. Some speices can go over on hour without coming up for air.

Cetaceans also have the ablility to dive up to 7000 feet under water. They have collapsable lungs to deal with pressure changes and which helps keep nitrogen out of their bloodstreams.They have adapted lungs which store higher concentrations of oxygen than most mammals.There are 90 species of cetaceans known to man. c.Two groups-Toothed and baleen Toothed whales include orcas, sperm whales, dolphin, and porpoise, etc.Toothed whales have one blowhole opening. They swallow food whole and mainly feed on fish, squid, seals, shark, otters etc.

There are 80 species of toothed whales. Baleen whales include the humpback, fin, minke, blue, gray whales etc. There are 11 species of baleen whales known. Baleen whales filter feed using large keratin plates called baleen, which hang from the top of their mouths. They take large gulps of water, some even have folds in their throat to allow it to stretch while feeding, close their mouths and filter the water out through the spaces between plates of baleen. Left behind is the krill, plankton, shrimp, and squid which can be scraped off the baleen by the whale's tongue.Baleen whales tend to make up most of the larger whales with the blue whale being the largest creature on earth. d.Some whales are migratory and travel north and south to breed and give birth, while others are residential and remain in the same area to feed, mate, and give birth.Some travel in groups called pods, while others travel alone. Migratory patterns are unique to each species. e.Whale size- Cetaceans can range in size from a few feet and 100 pounds to 100 feet and 200 tons. Some species already weigh two tons at birth. f.Most whales have the ablility to communicate with one another by echolocation, vocalizations, or displays out of, and under water.

TRACKING/IDENTIFYING WHALES IN THE WILD a.Most whale species have a distinct feature that researchers utilize to track individual whales or groups of whales.Some examples- Orcas-saddle behind the dorsal fin Gray-lumps of barnacles on the front of their head Humpbacks-white patterns on underside of tail flukes b.Researchers use these distinctions to help understand family patterns as well as migratory patterns of whale groups. They can also more easily document which whales are appearing in what areas on an annual basis. The websites mentioned are a helpful guide to this outline and have many pictures which would be useful in the lecture part of the activity.

HUMPBACK a.Baleen whale found in every ocean in the world b.One of the largest creatures on earth, weighing up to forty tons c.Migrate in groups north and south along coastlines to feed, mate, and give birth d.Exhibit social behaviors like spyhopping,lobtailing, breaching, singing, and tail slapping. Most photos are a result of one of these behaviors. e.Humpback populations were dangerously low before laws on commercial and subsistance whaling were passed. Now populations are estimated at 40,000. f.Still many problems facing humpback populations today-illegal hunting, overfishing, pollution. For more detailed information or some good pictures of humpbacks, refer to websites listed.

Credit for the activity

Original idea

Estimated time to do the activity

This activity has four parts, each taking up approximatly 15 minutes.

Goals of Activity:

Goal A
This activity will build curiousity of marine life, especially after students get to see live animals in a video and play researchers themselves.

Goal B
Students will make connections between themselves and another organism that is seemingly completely unlike them.

Goal C
Students will get a sense of individual accomplishment, as well as solve a scientific problem together.

Goal D
{Goal D}


National Science Education Standards. (NSES)

Two content standards that this lesson plan covers:

Standard 1

Students should develop the ability to do scientific inquiry and build an understanding of scientific inquiry.

A.Ask questions about objects, organisms, and events in the environment.
B.Plan and conduct simple investigations.
C.Use data to construct reasonable explanation.
D.Communicate investigations and explanations.

Standard 2

Students should develop an understanding of characteristics of organisms, life cycles of organisms, and organisms and environments.

A.Life cycles-organisms have basic needs for optimal survival.Birth, development, reproduction, death.Many characteristics are inherited. Many are individual.
B.Organisms and the environment-All animals rely on other plants and animals. All organisms cause change in their environment. Humans depend on both natural and constructed environments.


Materials Needed

Materials for a class of 30

  • 30 blank papers cut into the shape of a humpback whale tail. Refer to websites listed to see the general shape.
  • 1 long piece of paper with 30 spaces of the same shape and size as the students papers.
  • Students will be placing their drawings in these spaces. Decorate with an underwater theme if time permitting.
  • Markers or crayons
  • scotch tape
  • inkpad-washable
  • 30 laminated photos taken off are hundreds of actual photos of humpback tail flukes on the site. Chose photos that are very easy to distinguish for younger groups or more complicated photos for older groups. For a class of 30 you would need to chose 15 individual photos to be duplicated once and matched up by the students.
  • video-"In the company of whales" this can be found at many video stores or ordered off


The whale tails where students will be drawing should be cut out.
Long paper with spaces for these drawings and the students fingerprints, should be hanging up.
Edit the video to know which parts you would like to show.
Photos of whale's flukes should be printed up, copied, and laminated.

Step-by-Step Procedure for the Activity

First ask students questions about whales. See how much they know and adjust the lecture part of the activity according to their knowlege.Use pictures taken off the web pages to give them a visual aid while giving them the general information about whales.

Play a few minutes of the video to get students excited about the activity.

Next, pass out the blank whale tails. Ask students to draw whatever they wish for a pattern. As they finish, have students place their drawings, side by side on the larger piece of paper.Have each student also place their fingerprint next to their drawing. Ask students to look closely at eachothers drawings and fingerprints.What do they see? Does everyones fingerprint look the same? Do all the tails look the same? The students should discover that everyone has a unique fingerprint, just like every whale tail has a unique pattern. Explain that in nature these patterns show up as white markings under the humpback's tail. Make sure students understand that these markings are how researchers tell individual humpbacks apart, just like a detective can tell individual humans from fingerprinting.

Now show students the five minute part in the movie ,where researchers are tracking and identifying humpbacks.Tell the students that they too are going to be researchers. Have each student take one laminated photo from a basket. Explain that they need to work together as a team to help match each photo with its duplicate. Make sure students understand that it is important to look more at the white pattern on the tail rather than its size or shape. Ask students what they see in eachothers photos. After they have successfully matched all the photos ask them some questions about being a researcher.What was hard about researching whales? What made it easier? Help them understand that it was easier because they worked together.

If there is time remaining talk to students about some related issues. Ask them why it might be important for people to have research jobs and what other types of jobs might researchers do, in the ocean?

Images, work sheets, additional web pages

{none available}

Items for discussion or conclusion

1st question

How are we related to whales?

2nd question
Why is it important to study these animals? What other animals have distinct markings? Why?

3rd question
What types of things can humans do to preserve the whales natural environment?

4th question
How does it help to solve scientific problems in teams?


This activity could be done with a number of different orgnaisms. Many speices have some sort of distinguishing individual characteristics which researchers use. This activity can be a platform for students to then learn about ecology and the reasons why certain social animals have these ditinctive markings.Students will become curious about the ocean. They shoul get a sense of how we are related to these orgnaisms and how important it is to preserve their environment.

Beyond the Activity
Further activities which relate to and extend the complexity of the experiment.

This activity could be done using pictures of orca saddle patterns, or gray whale lumps. Students could also learn the reasons why many animals need these individual markings. There are also a number of land animals this activity could be extended to. There are distinctive patterns on many big cats, birds, and even insects.

Web Resources
A web address with information on the topic of the activity.

Web Address

Additional References