John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Researchers are studying its earwax to learn about human-made ocean pollution. Yes, there are photos.
Several years ago, an endangered blue whale swimming near Santa Barbara endured a major personal calamity when a ship rammed it, causing massive crushing injuries that eventually led to its death.
The 70-foot-long corpse floated over the seas to eventually wash up on a local beach, where no doubt the seagulls experienced a moment of exhilaration staring at the bottomless buffet before them. But this whale was destined for far greater things than simply fattening up hungry predators. Hearing of its demise, a team of scientists swooped down to the waterfront and set up a biological salvage operation (warning: these photos are about to get gross):
What they were keenly interested in lay buried within the whale's massive, rotting head. With a large knife in hand, somebody dug into the blubbery cranium to extract a long, resinous rod that looked like a cross between a goat's horn and a nasty old toenail. Here is that mysterious object:
Let's get real close:
When baleen whales are born, they immediately start accumulating a waxy substance in their ear canals that seals off the passageways from the surrounding waters. That's what this plastic apron-clad man is cradling: a 10-inch-long slab of crusty whale earwax, known as an "earplug." You can imagine his excitement.
Seriously – earplugs have scientific value. Researchers can count the rings on one to determine a whale's age, like staring at the cross section of a really foul tree. This specific earplug was going to reveal something new, though. The people who pried it out of the decomposing sea-beast planned to use it to study the pernicious toxins that human settlements leak into oceans with dismal regularity.
Two of the handlers of the sacred plug were Stephen Trumble and Sascha Usenko, professors at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Knowing that past researchers have probed whale blubber to suss out what chemicals the creatures were exposed to, they decided to do the same with their earplug. So they barraged it with various laboratory tests to build a timeline of their luckless whale's life, as defined by what hormones it secreted and what poisons it encountered in the seas. Their results, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that the animal had a colorful chemical history, one that was not exactly pleasant.
By the time it reached maturity, the whale had already sweated out buckets of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress. That might be due to environmental pollution or competition with other breeding whales. The researchers also found pesticides, PCBs, mercury, and flame retardants. All these things washed over the whale's body and were lodged in its wax, although their effects on its overall health remain a matter of speculation.
Usenko and Trumble say this is the first time in history someone's gleaned a whale's life story this way. "There is nothing like it. It really should be classified as a new field of research," Usenko said. They hope in the future this method can be used on other plugs kept in storage around the world, so that science can understand more about how whales are affected by our pollution, fishing nets, and sonar and thudding engine noise, as well as anthropogenic climate change. (The whale that provided Baylor's earwax would probably add "ship collisions" to the list, if it could.)
As one of the plug wranglers explains:
We are able to go back in time and analyze archived museum earplug samples that were harvested in the 1950s and examine critical issues such as the effects of pollution, use of sonar in the oceans and the introduction of specific chemicals and pesticides in the environment over long periods of time," Usenko said. "There are a myriad of ways that we can analyze plugs for a better understanding of marine ecosystems and these endangered animals. There is so much additional information that can be mined from studying earplugs.
Bottom image: Stephen Trumble at left and Sascha Usenko, boldly poking around where no scientist has poked before. (Baylor University Marketing & Communications / Robert Rogers.) Whale and earwax images courtesy of Michelle Berman-Kowalewski of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.