New research shows that the diarrhea-like waste from whales is rich in iron so it stimulates the growth of phytoplankton, which then serve as carbon traps that remove some 400,000 estimated tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year.
Capt. Joe Borkowski III and Nick Gales
This photograph shows an Antarctic minke whale in the Southern Ocean. The giant gas bubble emanating from the whale suggests that flatulence is just as common for ocean mammals as it is for humans and many other terrestrial animals.
Sarah Robinson, © Commonwealth of Australia
Antarctic Division marine biologist Nick Gales scoops whale poo from water. When whales consume iron-rich krill, they excrete most of the iron back into the water. That triggers the growth of phytoplankton. The phytoplankton take up carbon from the ocean as they grow. Through the entire life and death cycle of these plants, the carbon then stays trapped for centuries.
Mike Double, © Commonwealth of Australia
A scientist collects a fecal whale sample from a net. Most whale waste is not solid, but comes out as a giant liquid plume (save for the undigested squid beaks). Other marine mammals probably beneficially redistribute carbon just as whales do. These may include seals, sea lions and sea otters.
H. Ryono, Aquarium of the Pacific
Blue and Red
Blue whale poop is shown. The red coloration is a result of the whale's krill diet. "It is sometimes thought that conservationists try to 'save the whales' only because they are cute," says Trisha Lavery a marine biologist at Flinders University of South Australia. But, as she points out, the animals (and their waste) "play a crucial role in marine ecosystems."
Amid a flurry of paper airplanes, hosts adorned with little more than silver body paint, and the world's first and only opera about a centrifugal-force birthing machine, the 2013 Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded tonight (Sept. 12).
The Ig Nobels, which are awarded each year in the historic Sanders Theater on the Harvard University campus, honor scientific research that makes people laugh, then makes them think -- and then makes them laugh again. The science is real, and though it's been published in prestigious, peer-reviewed academic journals, it all has considerable popular appeal.
Who hasn't wondered, for example, about the effect that opera music might have on mice after they've had a heart transplant? (It helps, apparently.) And who among us, when seeing an amputated penis -- after it's been partially gnawed on by a duck -- hasn't asked, "Hey, is there a surgical technique that can help here?" (Answer: No, there isn't.) (The 10 Winners of the Ig Nobel Awards of 2013)
The Joint Prize in Biology and Astronomy Prize went to a team for their celestial discovery that lost dung beetles find their way home by looking at the Milky Way, that is, after they do a little jig on their perfectly rolled balls of poo. Physicists snagged an Ig Nobel for figuring out that walking on water is possible, if the water walker and the water are located on the moon.
Finally, these and other scientific inquiries are getting the recognition they've long deserved. And while some recipients are in on the spoof on the Nobel Prizes and enjoy the laughs as much as the spirited audience, others are apparently nonplussed by the honor bestowed by the Ig Nobels.
Notably absent, for example, was the winner of this year's Ig Nobel Peace Prize, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who declared it illegal to applaud in public. He shares the prize with the Belarus State Police, who arrested a one-armed man for clapping. But neither of these visionaries sent representatives to the unceremonious ceremony.
Another no-show was the winner in the Safety Engineering category, Gustano Pizzo, who invented an electro-mechanical system to drop would-be airplane hijackers through a trap door, seal them in a package, and then parachute that package — hijacker and all — into the arms of the police. Sadly, Pizzo died in 2006 before he could receive his Ig Nobel Prize, which comes with a $10 trillion bill (a $10 trillion Zimbabwean dollar bill, that is).
"The Stinker" is the official mascot of the Ig Nobel Prizes.Improbable Research
And though there's no category for research that could be greeted with a resounding "duh," the winners of this year's Ig Nobel Psychology Prize were a group of international scientists who confirmed that people who think they are drunk also think they are attractive. Their gobsmacking research was published in the prestigious British Journal of Psychology.
Among the highlights of this year's ceremony was the premiere of an original opera in four acts, "The Blonsky Device," which celebrates the work of George and Charlotte Blonsky. The couple was granted a U.S. patent in 1965 for a machine that would facilitate the birth of a child by centrifugal force. (The theme of this year's award ceremony was Force.)
The Blonskys' innovation featured a large circular table onto which a pregnant woman was strapped. Like a giant record player, the table — and its passengers — rotated at high speeds. For their invention (which was apparently never built, let alone used), the Blonskys were awarded an Ig Nobel in 1999.
The Ig Nobel award ceremony is, according to the playbill, "reluctantly inflicted upon you by the international science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research (AIR)."
In fact, past awards have been just as off-the-wall as this year's, with a 2011 Ig Nobel Prize going to a duo of biologists who found that male beetles of a particular species tended to try to have sex with bottles of a particular brand of beer. That year, the Mathematics Prize went to several people who, oops, made doomsday predictions that failed to come true. And in 2010, a prize honored the discovery that fruit bats enjoy fellatio. Neuroscientists snagged an award in 2012 for finding brain activity in a dead salmon.
This article originally appeared on LiveScience.com. More from LiveScience.com:
No Duh! The 10 Most Obvious Science Findings
Ig Nobel Prize Winners Make Hilarious Contributions to Science
The Funniest Theories in Physics
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