Tag Archives: blue whale

Investigating the Information Hidden in Whale Ear Wax

The hottest whale story of the day involves ear wax. Several outlets NBC NewsScience World Report, and New Scientist, among others, have posted stories about information enclosed in the long, waxy earplug of a 12 year old male blue whale that beached in 2007 along the California coast.  These earplugs have been used previously to determine the age of baleen whales. The wax builds up in the ear canal of the whales, with no way for the wax to exit the head. Baleen whales have distinct annual cycles of feeding and fasting, much like trees have annual cycles of growth and dormancy. Distinct changes in the rings are seen every six months. The blue whale from which the plug was taken was estimated to be 12 years old, since it had 24 rings in the wax.

The researchers of this project had wondered about what else could be ascertained from analysis of the waxy earplug. The results are significant, since they were able to determine several factors about the animal’s life, including the toxins that had entered the young whale’s body. It has long been known that many nursing marine mammals pass the toxins in their bodies through their milk to their calves. This sad fact held true for this blue whale.

Blue Whale4 NOAA

Their paper “Blue Whale Earplug Reveals Lifetime Contaminant Exposure and Hormone Profiles” has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  The authors have summarized the significance of their research: “Currently, obtaining lifetime chemical profiles (i.e., from birth to death) is extremely rare and difficult for most of Earth’s animals. We have developed a unique approach to quantify hormone and contaminant lifetime profiles for an individual blue whale with a 6-mo resolution using the wax earplug as a natural matrix capable of archiving and preserving these temporal profiles. Using a male blue whale earplug, chemical analysis reveals lifetime patterns of mercury and organic pollutant exposure as well as fluctuating hormone levels. Specifically, we quantified contaminant maternal transfer, time to sexual maturity, and the doubling of stress over the animal’s lifespan. We anticipate that this technique will fundamentally transform our ability to assess human impact on these environmental sentinels and their ecosystems.”

It should be noted that one of the authors, Charles Potter, of the Smithsonian Institution, is a friend of the New Bedford Whaling Museum and has contributed his knowledge, expertise and insight to past Museum projects.

Sensory Organ Discovered in Jaws of Rorqual Whales

Blue whale study done by Richard Ellis, in preparation for Jacobs Gallery mural. The distinctive throat pleats of all rorquals are clearly visible in this image. From NBWM collections, 2000.10.

Another exciting discovery has been made by cetacean biologists, this time in one of the four Families of the suborder Mysticeti (baleen whales).  The Balaenopteridae are also called rorquals, a reference to the throat pleats that run from chin to the middle of their bodies.  The term rorqual is based on the Norwegian word royrkval, which means ‘furrowed whale’.

Rorquals are the largest family of baleen whales, consisting of nine species, including the blue and humpback, which are represented in our Jacobs Family Gallery, and the fin and minke, which are commonly seen during whale watch tours in Massachusetts waters.  They all feed by gulping large amounts of water into their expandable throats and then forcing that water through their 500-800 plates of baleen back into the ocean. The animals that are left behind, typically krill or small fish, then get swallowed. This process is also known as lunge feeding. It requires an incredible amount of muscle power, since the whales are working against immense volumes of water. We all know how hard it is to run through water. Imagine trying to swim through it with your mouth open, a mouth that takes up 20% of your body length.

Several articles published on Wednesday, including this one, explain how the newly discovered sensory organ, located between the tips of the mandibles, regulates the feeding process.

The actual scientific paper that reports the discovery was published yesterday in the journal Nature. For those who want a more scientific explanation, the abstract from that paper, authored by the Smithsonian’s Nick Pyenson, and several others, can be viewed here.  Mr. Pyenson was one of the people summoned to the Atacama Region of Chile last year when a highway project unearthed dozens of fossil whale skeletons, and they had to be removed and taken away quickly.

The next time you’re at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, in the Jacobs Family Gallery, take a look at the lower jaws of the blue and humpback whale skeletons. You’ll notice that the lower jaws, unlike toothed whales or humans, are not connected at the tip (symphysis). In between those mandibles would be the organ described in the article. If you look at the North Atlantic Right Whale you’ll notice the same lack of fusing between mandibles. However, since right whales are not rorquals (they don’t have throat pleats) they would not have this sensory organ.

Patience Leads to First-ever Photo


Imagine spending days in the ocean waiting for that perfect photo opportunity.  That’s what a team of British divers based in Malaysia chose to do.  Ultimately, as shown in this story in the Faded Tribune, they were able to snap the first photo to show the full length of a blue whale and a human.

Getting the human in there is easy. The world’s longest animal is a different story. They don’t respond well to English and they’re always on the move. I challenge those of you reading this to try to figure out the length of the whale based on the length of the diver.  To make it easy, assume he’s approximately six feet tall. This does not look like a full grown whale.