Whale feces helps fuel marine ecosystem


Veterinary medicine finds out these gentle giants don't bury rich nutrients on the sea floor-they share via their floating plumes.

On the lighter side of marine veterinary medicine, we've got something we thought was heavy: whale poop.

Before University of Vermont whale biologist Joe Roman started watching whales defecate and collecting samples of whale feces, the world may have thought these intelligent ocean dwellers were eating fish and dumping their waste at the bottom of the sea. The Japanese and other whale-hunting countries even said these flippered giants were doing no good in the marine ecosystem and competing with their fishermen for fish.

Not true, say the researchers. Whales—like tiny microbes, plankton, and fish—recycle nutrients in the ocean's ecosystem, bring nitrogen to the surface in places like the Gulf of Maine that desperately need the element to allow more phytoplankton to grow that feed critters all the way up to fish and whales.

Whales don't bury nutrients at the bottom of the ocean, but send it floating on top, a "very liquidy, flocculent plume," according to Roman. (We had to look it up, too. "Flocculent" is an adjective describing objects with a flowing or wool-like appearance.)

Thus, the researchers argue that protecting whales—which may have diminished to 10 percent of their historic population sizes—directly benefits the health of fisheries, oceanic plant life, and the entire ocean ecosystem.

The research was published in the journal PLoS ONE.

Check out the flocculent wonder for yourself, and see video of a whale chomping on red krill and recycling the chow into a crimson tide (sorry, you Harvard alums).

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