Waves and Paths
Hannah Kloft (Environment)
Edited by Elizabeth Rose
What Whale Earwax Can Teach Us about Ourselves
Starting in the 1950s, researchers began collecting foot-long cones of evidence, formed beneath the waves of every ocean on Earth. These story-preserving spires, while not unlike fossils, were not shells or bones. In fact, they were earwax! Yes, squeamish reader, you read that right: whale earwax, to be precise.
Whale earwax contains layers of historical data that, at first, was preserved to calculate the age whales died, similar to analyzing the rings of a tree trunk. For instance, by distinguishing different colors, scientists could determine that a pair of light and dark layers equals one year in a blue whale’s life (Chen 2018).
You may be itching for a Q-Tip at the mere mention of feet lengths of ear wax or, validly, wondering how whales manage to sustain their infamous ability to hear over long distances. As it happens, whale earwax actually helps whales process sound, as its density is similar to that of the water. While some whales use the waves of echolocation to communicate, others converse in highly complex clicks and whistles, even displaying different “dialects” between pods, a reminder of their highly intelligent and social behavior (US 2022).
The collection of whale earwax began during the 50s, in “whaling stations”, sites which slaughtered and harvested whale flesh, blubber, and oil, until global commercial whaling was prohibited in 1986 (Chen 2018). Since then, whale earwax is normally collected from already deceased whales, either the unfortunate victims of fishing nets, ship strikes, or beachings, a large majority of their deaths direct causes of human behavior. At least 60% of blue whales have been entangled in fishing nets at one point in their lives, and an estimated 300,000 whales, porpoises, and dolphins drown each year in discarded fishing gear (Briggs 2021). While this loss of life seems unconscionable, and unnecessary, it is valuable to ask: how can the earwax we gather from this decimation be utilized to tell us more about their threatened lives?
In a miraculous 2013 discovery, Baylor University professors Dr. Stephen Trumble and Dr. Sascha Usenko developed a technique which revealed that much more than age can be determined from these “earplugs”. The researchers were able to abstract lifetime collections of endogenous and man-made chemicals, including the stress hormone cortisol and other contaminants like pesticides and flame retardants. Seeing these data like brush strokes upon a turbulent lifelong painting, a more robust and timely image could be formed of the miraculous hardships of today's largest creatures. By comparing earplugs from the 50s to those of today, for example, we can see high levels of cortisol in both due to ancient commercial whaling and modern ship paths, revealing decades of anthropogenic involvement (Lewis 2013). Today, ships cause immense stress to whales, not just due to their noisy engines, but also their insistent activity. Whales are migratory creatures, depending on their ability to move around for food and mating, and as the gif below shows, just how debilitating these obstacles can be for one whale only (the blue dot is the whale and the red dots are ships).
Dr. Usenko reveals the importance of this new collecting technique in relation to human activity: "You have this 100-year-old question: How are we impacting these animals? There is ship traffic, environmental noise, climate change and contaminants. Now, we are able to provide definitive answers by analyzing whale earwax plugs," Usenko explained (Lewis 2013).
While it may be nice to have “definitive answers” to the impact of human activity, as Usenko claims, I argue that our damage to nonhuman animals does not need to be further clarified. Just as you do not need to count the rings on a tree to understand its magnitude and grandeur, analyzing earwax simply confirms what we have known for decades. With new waves of evidence crashing in as science develops further, we have seen ideas as far fetched as introducing seaweed to cow’s diets to reduce methane emissions or labeling tuna cans as “dolphin safe”. At what point do we simply need to look at the literal waves rising ever higher on our beaches to see the human impact on the natural world? How long can we continue to manipulate nonhuman animals for our benefit or look for answers we already know before it’s too late? While this discovery is brilliant in scientifically confirming suspicions and providing concrete evidence, it seems to speak to an unplugged microphone in a world which continues to distrust and disregard the pleas of the scientific community. How much data needs to be produced before we give importance to other species and people unlike ourselves?
Whale earwax, like many other scientific attempts to convince the global population of the threat of climate change, is simply a paper in the mile-long file cabinet of evidence we have recorded. A new path towards combating climate change needs a new strategy. Perhaps we can take a page from the whale’s book, relying on the social patterns we know to be true and triumphant among our own species. If our rational brains are not in need of convincing, perhaps it’s our hearts. Humans are incredibly well-adapted to construct imaginative narratives and we rely on storytelling for understanding. If the heart of a blue whale weighs in at about 175 kilograms – about the weight of a car – and beats so loudly it can be heard from over two miles away, maybe we can try to emit just a fraction of their care. The task at hand now is not to produce more convincing numbers or more sound data. We need a path to combat climate change which is full of empathy, altruism, and other emotion-driven ethics. It was our first strategy at survival and it may well be our last.
1. Chen, Megan. 2018. “Whale Earwax: What You Can Learn from Strange Collections.” Si.edu. May 9, 2018. https://ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/marine-mammals/whale-earwax-what-you-can-learn-strange-collections.
2. Briggs, Helen. 2021. “Whale Threats from Fishing Gear ‘Underestimated.’” BBC News. BBC News. February 9, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-55987350.
3. Lewis, Tonya. 2013. “Baylor Professors Use Whale Earwax to Develop New Method of Determining Lifetime Contaminant Exposure in Whales.” Media and Public Relations | Baylor University. September 16, 2013. https://www.baylor.edu/mediacommunications/news.php?action=story&story=132825.
A Whale Hunt by Robert Sullivan (2001): An interesting perspective on cultural practices from the indigenous Makah tribe in the state of Washington, who attempt to preserve their tradition of whale hunting in modern times.