Whale Ear Wax Tells of Short, Contaminated Life
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."
A plug of ear wax that built up during a blue whale’s 12-year life has offered clues to the levels of pollutants that the whale accumulated from the ocean.
The 9.8-inch-long plug also provides a history of the whale’s maturation into adulthood.
The 68.8-foot male whale died after being struck by a ship off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. in 2007. During his life he built up concentric rings of wax in his ear canal.
Cetologists, or whale scientists, had previously discovered that whales’ ear wax build up in distinct layers as the animals migrate. Like the rings of a tree, the number of wax layers corresponded to the animals’ ages. The wax also collects a record of the chemicals flowing through the animals’ bodies over time.
A team of zoologists and environmental scientists discovered that the dead whale had started accumulating toxins even before he was born. Even the earliest layers of the whale’s wax plug held pesticides, the coolant fluids known as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and flame retardant polybrominated diphenyl ethers.
The whale wax also contained a steady dose of mercury along with two distinct spikes in concentration. The study’s authors suggested that the whale may have picked up these mercury spikes from the food it ate in particular regions as it migrated.
The levels of testosterone trapped in the wax rings suggested that the whale had reached sexual maturity only two years before being his fatal encounter with a ship.
The journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published the study of the whale’s wax.
Photo: A blue whale. Credit: Getty