Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Whale Poop

There are some people who disapprove of going to pubs to imbibe a couple of beers (well, okay, more than a couple – at least for me anyway!) and other types of drinks. I suppose these people would consider it a waste of time and money. But I beg to differ.

I am not going to brag why I enjoy going to pubs – but one particular visit (not by me!) was enough to produce a brilliant of an idea that did go to contributing to the study of science! Wow!

Scientist Steve Nicol admitted that the idea to research whale poop came from a casual pub chat among Antarctic researchers in Australia’s island state of Tasmania. Whale droppings have emerged as a natural ocean fertilizer which could help combat global warming by allowing the Southern ocean to absorb more carbon dioxide (The Sun, April 27, 2010, p 19).

This research by the Australian Antarctic Division suggests that whales naturally fertilize surface waters with iron-rich whale feces, allowing the whole eco-system to send more carbon dioxide into deep waters. Nicol's team used 27 samples of feces from the near-extinct Baleen Whale. They found iron to be as much as 10 million more times present in the fecal matter than in the Antarctic Ocean (Webpage: http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/291191, accessed April 28, 2010).

So here's the theory: Phytoplankton bloom in surface waters that contain lots of water-soluble iron. Krill eat the phytoplankton and take in all that iron. Baleen whales eat krill, and likewise take in all that iron. It's like recycling, only better, because instead of getting 5 cents back for an iron bottle, you're getting a tasty meal. Then the whale poops, and it acts as a fertilizer, releasing all that iron back into the water. It's like the circle of life.

Photo of whale poop after a humpback whale was feeding on krill:

Image credit: Blue Ocean Society (http://marinelife.about.com/od/watchingandphotography/ig/Humpback-Images/Whale-poop.htm)
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It’s also worth remembering that even if you don’t actually come up with great ideas – you should still enjoy your beers anyway! "Beer is proof that God loves us, and wants us to be happy" – this is supposedly attributed to Benjamin Franklin and I cannot agree with him more!

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