A Whale of a time in an earwaxing sort of way.
November 22, 2018 4:10 AM   Subscribe

The History of the Oceans Is Locked in Whale Earwax.
The massive plugs contain spikes and dips of stress hormones that perfectly match the history of modern whaling.
For those of you with a more scientific disposition: Baleen whale cortisol levels reveal a physiological response to 20th century whaling.
posted by adamvasco (19 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
It's Thanksgiving Day in the US so I feel it extra necessary to say THERE IS A PHOTO OF THIS IF YOU SCROLL, so be wary when you click if you're about to eat.

Whale earwax forms like yours does: A gland secretes oily gunk into the ear canal, which hardens and accumulates into a solid, tapering plug. In the largest whales, like blues, a plug can grow up to 10 inches long, and looks like a cross between a goat’s horn and the world’s nastiest candle. Fin whale wax is firmer than blue whale wax, bowhead whale wax is softer and almost liquid, and sei whale wax is dark and brittle. But regardless of size or texture, these plugs are all surprisingly informative.

As whales go through their annual cycles of summer binge-eating and winter migrations, the wax in their ears changes from light to dark. These changes manifest as alternating bands, which you can see if you slice through the plugs. Much as with tree rings, you can count the bands to estimate a whale’s age. And you can also analyze them to measure the substances that were coursing through the whale’s body when each band was formed. A whale’s earwax, then, is a chronological chemical biography.

Otherwise, this article just won the internet today.
posted by nightrecordings at 4:45 AM on November 22, 2018 [7 favorites]

I love science.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:46 AM on November 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

The Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa has 4,000 [Whale] ear plugs
That's pretty amazing. I wonder if there is some other reason for collecting the plugs. Or if it was just because they were there.
posted by Mitheral at 5:06 AM on November 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Wow! And my son and grandson are in Ottawa for the weekend so I've got to tell them about this!
posted by mareli at 5:56 AM on November 22, 2018

I wonder if there is some other reason for collecting the plugs.

This one guy on a whaling ship had an idea for a candle-making business that never took off.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:57 AM on November 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

“Museums are notorious for collecting everything, and waiting for the science to catch up,” Trumble says. “We called Charles Potter at the Smithsonian Institution, and he said, ‘It’s interesting you called because we have pallets and pallets of these ear plugs sitting around, and we’re thinking of throwing them away.’ Instead of being thrown away, those ear plugs are now objects of wonder.”
posted by explosion at 6:04 AM on November 22, 2018 [8 favorites]

I think this is the whale whose earwax they show in Figure 1 of this article. Poor guy. Hit by a ship.
posted by pracowity at 6:19 AM on November 22, 2018

I just finished reading the real article. Such good stuff. Hormones are really, really interesting and there are all sorts of ways to study them with good and bad aspects.

I use fecal hormones for my work on monkeys, and collect lots of fecal samples per monkey. Feces incorporates hormone metabolites while it's traveling through guts, so it's a good record of what the body excreted during that 24ish hour period. BUT gut passage rates change based on what you're eating, how much water you're drinking, and so on, so interpreting hormone concentrations from fecal samples can be complicated. Urinary hormones are nice because you can calibrate the urine sample by how concentrated it is, looking at excretion rates and concentration of creatinine in the urine and then use that information to interpret urinary hormone concentrations ... but it's so challenging to collect urine from small arboreal species (I've literally had dreams about it, but it's never worked for me). You can get more precise data from saliva, blood, and cerebrospinal fluid, but as it gets more invasive to collect, it gets more complicated to collect - and you run the risk of artificially spiking cortisol by stressing out the animals through darting or trapping.

These are all snapshots of a moment in time, and you need longitudinal data to be able to interpret what a particular hormone concentration needs to the animal - establishing baselines, looking at fluctuations. The closest thing we can get to this sort of longterm earwax data for most organisms is looking at hair and feathers: hormone metabolites get incorporated into those tissues at a relatively constant rate. I have some friends who put duct tape on tree branches to try and pull out chimpanzee hair to get the root and then extract hormones, but it is an inexact science. Unfortunately, I don't really have any idea how long orangutan earwax sticks around for in an orangutan ear, and I don't really know how to get at it. Q-tip-laden drones would probably be ineffective. But man... it would be so cool. We can sort of do that sort of longterm work with bone chemistry, but it doesn't capture hormones in the same way. Alas ... earwax.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:24 AM on November 22, 2018 [19 favorites]

Wouldn’t it be great if we spent our R&D budget on safe and non-invasive wild mammal earwax collection rather than blowing stuff up, death robots, and resource extraction? Think of what we could learn!
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:37 AM on November 22, 2018 [4 favorites]

Also, that was a very ChuraChura comment.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:38 AM on November 22, 2018 [6 favorites]

I can only be me!
posted by ChuraChura at 7:23 AM on November 22, 2018 [11 favorites]

Whale earwax is certainly not something I woke up expecting to be thinking about today. Thank you, that was fascinating.
posted by DingoMutt at 8:02 AM on November 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

safe and non-invasive wild mammal earwax collection ... Think of what we could learn!

Think of how much better the whales could hear!

For anyone else confused, Ambergris is not whale cerumen, it's whale bile. Well not really bile, but a special fatty shit-smelling secretion from the bile ducts. Anyway, totally different disgusting bodily secretion.
posted by Nelson at 8:18 AM on November 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

In related news, we've determined that two thirds of all whalesong translates to "WHAT?" and "COULD YOU REPEAT THAT"
posted by phooky at 9:52 AM on November 22, 2018 [12 favorites]

More on whale earwax.
posted by gudrun at 10:03 AM on November 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

That was weirdly interesting.

Now I want to go to the Natural History Museum and see if they have any whale ear plugs on display.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:45 PM on November 22, 2018

This is super cool but I can't read the article because reading about whale stress will make me cry.

posted by latkes at 1:17 PM on November 22, 2018 [7 favorites]

Bad news/good news: this future won't let us stop the suffering of beautiful, rare, sentient mammals. But it can allow us to graph their suffering.
posted by Rust Moranis at 2:13 PM on November 22, 2018 [5 favorites]

Read 'Whale Earwax' too quickly and got confused looking through the article for Lassie's trainer
posted by zaixfeep at 4:46 PM on November 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

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