This Is Why Scientists Believe Whale Poop Could Save the World
by Owen James Burke
(Photo: Tony Wu/University of Vermont)
While some argue that human waste may be at the nexus of global climate change, nutrient-rich whale poop may very well be the solution.
A study published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment by scientists at the University of Vermont is pointing to one thing the health of the oceans has on its side: whale poop.
Great whales, which include sperm and baleen whales, feed on krill in the deep and return to the surface to relieve themselves. Those fecal plumes pictured above may look toxic, but they’re rich in iron and actually feed plankton, which then photosynthesize, die and sink to the ocean floor, taking carbon along with them.
A previous study which took place in the Southern Ocean suggested that just by going number two, sperm whales stimulate so much plankton growth that it results in the removal of hundreds of thousands of tons of atmospheric carbon each year.
It was once thought that relieving the ocean of whales would make room for other, smaller species (i.e. their prey) to flourish, which, in some regard, makes a great deal of sense. Simple logic would have it that removing a predator would allow for prey to proliferate. Indirectly, whales do much more than eat, swim and defecate; each of these simple functions invigorate ocean life.
Whale poop is rich in the iron and nitrates necessary for algal plankton to photosynthesize. Without whales, there are fewer nutrients and with fewer nutrients there are fewer algal plankton. While algal plankton take up precious oxygen through photosynthesis, they also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and send it down to the seafloor where it lies dormant for thousands of years — a far better case-scenario.
Not only do algal plankton remove the most widely betrothed compound from the earth’s atmosphere, there are fewer animal plankton. Ultimately, fewer whales mean fewer fish. So while politicians with certain agendas continue to argue that removing whales from the sea is an environmentally beneficial action to take, scientific reasoning begs to differ.
There’s more: even the vertical movements of these massive mammals gives sea life a stir. By diving and surfacing, whales cause waves and rippling effects that disperse nutrients in the same way that currents, tides, wind and waves do.
And lastly, by eating small fish, whales make room for the next generation by culling populations which in some instances have become so numerous that they’ve become a threat not only to other species, but their very own as well.
So should you be going to the shore to do your part for the environment by performing your morning ritual in the sea? No, your fecal matter doesn’t possess the same magic, so don’t go dropping dookies in the surf thinking that they’re god’s gifts to the oceans, but do watch this video, and maybe learn a thing or two about the largest and most inherently generous stewards of the mammalian class:
Read more at CityLab — OJB