This story was first published by Slate and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Whales could poopScientists have discovered more than they thought. That’s one conclusion of a paper published Wednesday in NatureResearchers used drones and suction-cup sensors to spy on baleen whales in order to determine how much they eat. Previous estimates of how many whales poop were made based on their stomach contents and the captive animals like orca. The new paper shows that baleen whales, who count the blue whale as part of their number, eat three times more krill per day than scientists thought. They also poop more, since what goes in must go out.
Matthew Savoca is a postdoctoral researcher at the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University. He is also an author on this study. However, Matthew Savoca stresses that his findings do not provide a definitive answer to the question of how many whales poop. One thing is certain, however: more whale poop can be great news. All of us.
First, you need to know that whale poop is visually stunning. Picture a pooping blue whale. Blue whales rise from deep within the Atlantic Ocean to the surface where there will be less pressure against their bowels. It breaks the water’s skin with a foaming exhale, propels itself forward with its gigantic fluke, and releases from its posterior a neon-hued plume of jello-like excreta. Loose clumps bob to the surface—a treasure. (If you’re not convinced yet, bear with me.)
All whale poop doesn’t look the same. Every poop looks different. Depending upon the type of whale and the meal, feces might be neon yellow to brick-red; fleecy or liquidy breadcrumbs consistency depending on the texture. (You can see a video of a blue-blue whale pooping neon urine. here. The smell of whales can vary greatly. Dr. Joe Roman, a conservation biologist and writer at the University of Vermont, says that when they are eating fish, humpback whale poo smells “very mild.” He figures the poop of endangered right whales is among the worst, with a scent reminiscent of sulfurous, briny dog crap. “If you get right whale feces on your clothes, it doesn’t matter how much you wash it,” he says. “You basically have to throw it away.”
Scientists put up with dealing with this smelly-jello because it offers important data on somewhat mysterious creatures–it’s not easy to study a huge animal that travels thousands of miles through often-treacherous waters, mostly hidden. Poop collection has many things to recommend it as a research technique: its non-invasive to the whales, there’s plenty poo to sample, and the poo often floats. (Fecal plumes can be difficult to spot, so some researchers employ poop detecting dogs to point the way.)
Once whale poop is captured with a net or jar on a stick, it opens a window into the creature’s lives. The fecal analysis can be used to identify individual whales. It can also reveal information about their stress levels, whether they are pregnant or not, their diet and any diseases they have, as well as their genetic makeup.
Whale poop has made possible studies such as a December 2020 report in Conservation Physiology,In which researchers detected elevated stress in a male injured by a propeller or vessel strike, and a 2012 study in which researchers found a drop in stress related hormones with the period immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, likely due to decreased shipping noise.
Not only is whale poop important to scientists, but it’s also important for the ocean. It’s rich in iron, which is an important micronutrient for ocean creatures. The iron is eaten by tiny marine plants called phytoplankton. Small shrimp-like krill then eats the plants. Whales and fish then eat the krill which produces more poop. (Research shows that whales’ miraculous poos support more fish and krill than the whales eat. Scientists discovered this “krill paradox,” in areas where whales were severely hunted: populations of krill, fish, seals, seabirds, and small whales declined even though there were fewer whales to compete with or eat them.)
Iron-eating phytoplankton, in addition to being an important component of the food chain is also an important part. sequester carbon , so more of these tiny plants is a climate positive. They absorb carbon dioxide like plants on the ground, use light and water to release it for energy, and then release oxygen as waste. Researchers have discovered that phytoplankton produces a lot of oxygen. at least half the planet’s oxygen. This photosynthesis can only be achieved with a little iron. The carbon in the phytoplankton is absorbed into the animal that ate it if they are eaten. If not, they fall through the water as “marine snow,” that remains on the ocean floor for hundreds to thousands of years.
Iron is plentiful near the coasts: rivers and streams carry iron from the earth and pooping animals into the ocean. Iron is scarce in the Southern Ocean, which is close to Antarctica, an ice-covered area. Iron means no iron in the water. This includes no iron in the krill, plants, or creatures. There is also no need to worry about climate change. “Iron is essentially a key to unlocking or realizing the potential of this system,” says Savoca.
The bottom line is that the more whale poop on our planet, the better.