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Karen Telleen-Lawton: Whale Feces Yield Big Clues for Marine Biologists

By | Published on 04/21/2014

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One of my favorite cartoons, by retired cartoonist Gary Larson, is about canine poop. In my recollection, two leashed dogs chat while one of their owners stoops to pick up a fragrant pile. “I like to sniff it as much as anyone,” the dog smirks, “but I don’t collect it!”

That particular owner may not have been collecting per se, but the pooch is right about people gathering poop.

At the turn of the millennium, my husband and I spent several weeks gathering frass in the Guanacaste tropical dry forest of Costa Rica. It sounds adventuresome, even romantic, until you learn that frass is insect poop. For this privilege, we paid our own costs plus part of the research cost.

What I’d like to tell that dog is that we collect poop because it has answers.

In the case of the frass, the researchers for whom we volunteered were investigating the intertwined life cycles of flowers and their insect pollinators. They studied whether climate change was affecting the convergence of the insects’ flying and gathering stage with the flowers’ fertile stage. If the flowers bloomed before the insects hatched, pollination would be difficult, at least by their normal pollinator. At that time, their cycles still overlapped somewhat.

More recently I listened to a National Public Radio story reported by Robert Krulwich featuring poop on the other end of the size spectrum — whale feces. It seems marine biologists have puzzled for years over the question of how many whales swam the seas before whaling. In particular, they thought the number of blue whales had been about a hundred times the current number.

The problem with that estimate is that it would require a gargantuan amount of the tiny crustacean called krill that blue whales eat. Krill, in turn, require a large intake of iron — more than is available in the sea.

That’s when Dr. Victor Smetacek, a Danish marine biologist, proposed that the whales themselves provided an extra nutritious “manuring mechanism,” as he termed it, for the krill. Thus the need to collect whale feces. They discovered that indeed whales concentrate iron and excrete it in iron-rich deposits — deposits sufficient to provide for zillions of tiny krill.

Another benefit of investigating whale poop has been learning more about the nutrient cycle of the seas. An Australian biologist named Trish Lavery believes that sperm whales enhance the productivity of the Antarctic Ocean by gathering nutrients, especially iron from animals like deep-water colossal squid.

Lavery and her colleagues measured surface iron deposits by counting the brown patches floating on the water. Eew. But these patches point to an important function as we look at services whales provide and the benefits of slowing climate change. Nature’s “services” is economist-speak, but necessary for those who think animal species need to be providing something to be worthy of surviving.

I sincerely hope no one is measuring what service humans are providing the Earth. But you see, Oh Larson’s dog, that we humans are pretty smart. We’re strong enough to affect the climate of the Earth, and smart enough to measure the effects. We may yet gather the discipline to make changes to avert great catastrophe. We deserve to be on top of the heap.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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