September 22, 2013
A Waxy Interlude Turns Into A Whale’s Life Song
The extraction is made. A foot-long rod of what seems to be tree bark is pulled from the ear of a dead blue whale carcass. This is no ordinary tree bark, however. Rather, it is a plethora of information into the life story of the large mammal, as well as Mother Nature’s own ocean. The diaries of a blue whale have now begun, as scientists are flooding over these earwax rods to surface an unveiling of information on the lives of these large creatures and the health of the ocean at large.
Each year the whale’s ear will arrange a new layer of fats, oils and native chemicals creating a map to the life of the marine mammal’s body and surrounding elements. Essentially, “it’s keeping a journal,” Stephen Trumble, a marine biologist at Baylor University told NBC News.
A new case to be studied and analyzed, a 10-inch rod from a 12-year-old male whale beached on the coast of California in 2007 comes into the spotlight. With intricate details such as stripped bark, the rod is firm and bears the shape of a dripped candle. Containing twenty-four rings, it explains the six-month phases of the whale’s life through fasting and feeding seasons, stress levels, pollution and even the bare necessities of puberty. The only noticeable hindrance to this fascinating discovery…it wreaks… “Oh my gosh, I can’t even explain it…they smell terrible.” Trumble commented.
Up to this point, scientists have never been able to accurately place the age in which blue whales start transformations from adolescence to adulthood. Thanks to this male, however, Trumble and company have managed to make a clear starting marker for the first time in history. Similar to the age in which humans start their process, the September 16th issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science explains the male whale engaged in puberty at the age of nine years and a few months. During this particular moment in the whale’s journey, researcher’s noticed a spike in testosterone levels, chased quickly by a spike in cortisol, a hormone released when the animal is stressed. “I saw that and I just chuckled,” Trumble said. “It was mixing with the big guys trying to mate, and probably getting a rough time from the other males.”
Relating to human birth, the whale’s wax described an unusual level of pollutants among the first few months of its life, confirming that baby whales soak up toxins from their mothers while in the womb.
The chemicals trapped in the earwax have also opened up a new world of information into the quality of the environment that the whale was swimming in. Researchers noticed a spike in mercury levels suggesting the whale encountered a large polluted territory of ocean during a few months of its life.
With the large animals constantly traveling through thousands of miles of the ocean on an intimate and personal level, scientists are thrilled at the amount of knowledge they will be able to recover. “The large whales… you can’t ask for any other kind of steward to let us know what’s really going on.” It’s like an exceedingly large messenger owl.
Museums across America contain hundreds of earplugs waiting to be deciphered and analyzed. The Smithsonian Museum alone has over 400 plugs from different whales such as fin, sei, humpback and gray whales within their walls. “We have a female earplug from 1964 we’re really excited about,” Trumble said. The chemical composites may indicate how many calves the whale had brought to life and at what age she had them.
As these diaries provide enriching and exciting tales, they are not only singing their version of their life song, but decades upon decades of tales on our ever changing and evolving ocean waters.
Image Credit: Thinkstock.com