Pixel Tracker

Monday, January 21 , 2019, 6:38 pm | Fair 58º


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

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.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.