Saturday 19 June 2010

Whale Poop Cleans the Environment

Whale waste is rich in iron so it stimulates the growth of phytoplankton, which then serve as carbon traps that remove some 400,000 estimated tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year.

Sperm whale waste isn't much to look at -- a diarrhea-like substance with a few squid beaks floating around -- but new research has found it removes carbon from the atmosphere, helping to offset greenhouse gases that have been tied to global warming.

Sperm whales in the Southern Ocean release 220,462 tons of carbon when they exhale carbon dioxide at the water's surface, but their poo stimulates the drawdown of 440,925 tons of carbon, according to the research, published in the latest Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

These ocean giants and certain other marine mammals may therefore be among the most environmentally beneficial animals on the planet.

"If Southern Ocean sperm whales were at their historic levels, meaning their population size before whaling, we would have an extra 2 million tonnes (2,204,623 tons) of carbon being removed from our atmosphere each and every year," lead author Trisha Lavery Told Discovery News.

Lavery, a marine biologist at Flinders University of South Australia, and her colleagues explained how the cleaning process works.

It begins with sperm whales feeding on squid and fish, their favorite prey, deep in the ocean. The whales then return to the water's surface to relieve themselves.

"They do this because they shut down their non-crucial biological functions when they dive," Lavery said. "So it's only when they come to the surface to rest that they defecate."

Their waste comes out as a giant liquid plume (save for the undigested squid beaks) that showers over minute aquatic plant "seed stocks," which she said are "just floating around waiting for nutrients so they can use them to grow and reproduce." The whale poo provides these nutrients, functioning as a natural fertilizer.

The plants -- phytoplankton -- take up carbon from the ocean as they grow. Through the entire life and death cycle of these plants, the carbon then stays "trapped" for centuries to millennium.

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