Tag Archives: Whale

Whale poop? Why does it matter?

Whales play a major role in maintaining the health of the oceans by acting as ecosystem engineers – in simple terms they modify a habitat by changing the availability of resources for other organisms. whale poop 1Whales will feed on organisms at different levels of the ocean. While there, they feed on small organism like krill or large organisms like the giant squid. The nutrients that they ingest and process through their body is later released as flocculent fecal plumes. This basically means that whale poop doesn’t sink, but floats. The release of these fecal plumes brings nutrients to the upper layer of the ocean known as the photic zone. Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous are not easily found in the photic zone. For that reason we can perceive why it plays an important role.

whale poop 2In the photic zone we find other important organisms known as phytoplankton. These little guys are primary producers – they can make their own food. However, in order for them to accomplish this they need nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus found in whale poop. Because whales have such a huge appetite they produce a lot of poop that can not only be transported vertically through the world’s oceans but also horizontally due to their migration patterns. This increase in phytoplankton helps feed zooplankton, which feeds fish, and so on straight up the food chain. As plankton grows, they absorb carbon from the atmosphere, once they die – if not eaten – this carbon settles on the sea floor.

This nutrient cycling process was termed the “whale pump” by Joe Roman a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont and James McCarthy a Harvard zoologist.whale poop 3 They conducted experiments in the Gulf of Maine’s euphotic zone. They determined that in one year, marine mammals release approximately 23,000 metric tons of nitrogen per year to the surface of the Gulf of Maine. This value would have been much higher two hundred years ago before the start of commercial whaling. It is estimated that world whale populations have declined by 66% – lowest value – over the last few centuries.

Although it may not seem significant, whale poop plays a major role in the world’s oceans.

Photo 1: Image Credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/bb/WhalePump.jpg

Photo 3: Image Credit: http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/uncyclopedia/images/a/ab/Whale-poops.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20100616114838

Whale Teeth vs. Baleen

Teeth Vs. Bristles

There are over 80 species of Cetaceans, or whales, which are divided into two groups, or suborders, based on how they eat. The two suborders of Cetaceans are Odontocetes and Mysticetes. Cetaceans that have teeth belong in a very diverse group called Odontocetes, which includes over 70 different species. Toothed whales typically have a single blowhole and use echolocation to find their food, which they have to chew up to eat.  Some examples of Odontocetes are dolphins, sperm whales, belugas, and narwhals (That’s right! The big unicorn horn on narwhals is actually a TOOTH!).

Credit: Chicago Zoological Society, Sarasota Dolphin Research Program

So if this other group of whales called Mysticetes doesn’t have teeth, then what do they have? Baleen. Mysticetes, quite literally means, “mustache whales,” named after all the bristly, hairy baleen in their mouths. Baleen is an elaborate structure made of hundreds of plates hanging from the upper jaw, while the inner surface makes a dense mat of hair acting as a strainer. This suborder includes over 10 species like the Humpback whale, Sei whale, and Blue whale (which happens to be the biggest animal that has ever lived! Even bigger than the Titanosaur!). Mysticetes have two blowholes, instead of one, and typically do not use echolocation to hunt. They eat by sucking in huge volumes of water (with prey in it), then spitting the water back out through their baleen, which traps the food on its inner surface.

For more information on Whales and their baleen visit https://www.redorbit.com/news/science/1112803585/baleen-whale-teeth-entangle-prey-031413/

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