Whale Waste Does Not Go To Waste

An evocative and informative video clip, posted by Sustainable Human, complete with stunning footage of humpback whales, has been released to laud the biological benefits of whale waste. The key point is that as whales release their waste, the iron in their fecal matter spurs the photosynthesis performed by phytoplankton. This phytoplankton is food for zooplankton and other filter feeders. The phytoplankton also traps carbon dioxide. If those phytoplankters die, they sink to the bottom thus removing the CO2 from circulation.

Humpback whales feeding at the surface. Photo courtesy of Whale and Dolphin Coservation, taken by Karolina Jasinska.

Humpback whales feeding at the surface. Photo courtesy of Whale and Dolphin Coservation, taken by Karolina Jasinska.

This video introduces the story in an eye-catching manner. Robert Krulwich, co-host of NPR’s RadioLab, then does a great job of elaborating on the concept of whale feces providing the iron necessary to support this phytoplankton that generate much of the energy at the beginning of marine food webs. He also gives credit to Dr. Victor Smetacek from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research for first considering the connection between an iron-poor environment like the Antarctic and the enormous animals that were successful in finding ample food supplies in such a contradictory environment.

The connections between organisms are more complex than simple food chains, even though it is certainly much easier to explain the relationships as linear patterns.  Phytoplankton are eaten by more than 80 species of krill, 15,000+ species of copepod, thousands of species of fish, many of the shellfish we eat, and countless other species.  These food webs are the most robust when all levels, especially those considered to be the top of these trophic relationships are allowed to flourish. Removing something as significant as whales not only changes the dynamics within ocean ecosystems, it creates changes that belie our expectations.

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