Saturday, 11 August 2012

The Hidden Power of Whale Poop

The largest animals ever to have lived on Earth, blue whales are colossal in every respect — including, it must be said, the scatological. When a blue whale goes, it goes big.
This remarkable phenomenon was recently captured on camera by Eddie Kisfaludy, a marine biologist and oceanographic consultant. While conducting an aerial survey off the coast of southern California, he flew over a pod of 40 blue whales.
The waters were rich in krill, the tiny crustaceans on which blue whales feed, and their orange hue was brightly visible in a fecal plume he photographed. It’s hard to judge absolute distances from the photo, but in scale the deposit is nearly as long as a full-grown blue whale.
It may well be the world’s largest documented poop. It’s also an exclamation point to a line of research pursued in recent years by marine biologists who say whales are the ocean’s unappreciated gardeners, playing enormous roles in nutrient and carbon cycles. In short — or perhaps in long — their poop helps make the aquatic world go round.
“Whales and marine mammals can fertilize their surface waters,” said Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont, when shown Kisfaludy’s picture. “This can result in more plankton, more fish, and more whales.”
In 2010, after sampling the scat of humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine, Roman and Harvard zoologist James McCarthy proposed what they called the “whale pump”: A mechanism describing how whales feeding at depth carry nitrogen to warm, energy-rich surface waters, discharging it in “flocculent fecal plumes.”
Flocculent is a lovely word for a loose aggregation of particles, fluffy or woolly in nature. It’s also why whale poop floats. Most previous research on oceanic carbon and nitrogen flows fixated on their downward drift, but the whale pump represented a flow in the opposite direction, a way for surface waters to continually be recharged, stimulating the growth of plankton and everything that eats them.

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