Ear Wax - In Whales It Tells Us A Lot
by Rebecca Segal
Whale ear wax doesn't really sound all that important, but its unique properties have the world of science intrigued. In a way, ear wax is almost like a time capsule; it can tell researchers important things about both the whale's life and the area where the whale has traveled. This information is important because it can open up new doors into understanding the health of both whales and the oceans they live in.
What is Whale Ear Wax?
Cerumen is the actual term for ear wax and is derived from the Latin word 'cera' around the 17th century.
The ear wax produced in a whale is much the same as the ear wax in a human. It is created inside the ear, usually in the outer canal. Specialized glands produce the glossy, sticky wax, which is used to help keep the ears clean. Some scientists also speculate that the ear wax plugs can improve hearing rather than impair it.
Because the ear canals of a whale are so long, the wax can form a plug of sorts, a hard structure of wax that can be inches long. For an example, a plug removed from a deceased blue whale was 10" long.
Using Earwax to learn about a Whale's Life
Because water can't enter a whale's ear canal - its anatomy doesn't allow it - the wax that builds up in its ear has nowhere to go. Given that, it builds upon itself just like a growing tree, eventually becoming a plug.
Earwax is a fatty deposit, which allows 'information' like chemicals, pollution, and stress levels to be recorded. These plugs are capable of telling the story of the whale's life, just like tree rings in the trunk of a tree. They can describe when a whale hit puberty and how stressed the animal was. Researchers are currently seeking out ways to learn about whether the sounds of ships have any adverse effects on the whales.
Because whale earwax is deep within the ears of the whale, it is only possible to retrieve it from deceased whales.
Earplug from a Blue Whale
The largest animal on earth, the blue whale can reach lengths of up to 98 feet and weigh up to 181 tons. It feeds on some of the smallest creatures on the planet - plankton - and uses specialized teeth called baleen in order to strain them from the water. Like other species of baleen whales, blue whales grow earwax plugs.
In 2007, a male blue whale washed up on the coast of California. A 10" long plug was removed from the ear canal and analyzed by scientists. They discovered persistent organic pollutants (pesticides, mercury, and fire retardants), and hormones like testosterone and cortisol. Because of the 'timeline' in the earwax plug, researchers were able to determine that the male blue whale was ten years of age, which suggests (from previous research) that it had reached sexual maturity.
How Can Whale Earplugs Help Save the Oceans?
As mentioned above, the earwax plugs of baleen whales are formed like the rings in a tree; they are like a recording of that animal's life. Until recently, scientists had no concrete way of understanding how ships and environmental noise affected marine mammals. Using the earwax plugs, researchers may even discover the impact of climate change on whales.
Using the data collected in the above research will allow for new discoveries and a brand new understanding of how whales respond to their environment. For instance, it's possible that some pesticides currently used could be detrimental to the health and development of whales and other marine animals. The earplugs could help open doors into a world that hasn't been accessible until now.
In short, the earwax plugs of whales have the potential to give solid evidence into how whales react to chemicals, hormones, and stress. The more people know and understand how the ocean works and how the organisms are thriving in the environment, the better the chance that they will respond.
Rebecca Segal is a ghostwriter and content writer who works from her home office in BC, Canada. She owns her own writing company, R.K Segal Writing, and currently has a Bachelor's Degree in Natural Resource Protection, a Diploma in Resource Management Officer Technology, and an Award of Excellence from the Minister of Environment. She is passionate about the environment and has been pursuing a career in the natural resource field.
This article is based on the following research.
Purves, P. E., and M. D. Hountford. "Ear Plug Laminations in Relation to the Age Composition of a Population of Fin Whales (Balaenopiera Physalus)." Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History). 5 (1959): 125-61. Web.
Trumble, S. J., E. M. Robinson, M. Berman-Kowalewski, C. W. Potter, and S. Usenko. "Blue Whale Earplug Reveals Lifetime Contaminant Exposure and Hormone Profiles." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110.42 (2013): 16922-6926. Web.
Yamato, Maya, Darlene R. Ketten, Julie Arruda, Scott Cramer, and Kathleen Moore. "The Auditory Anatomy of the Minke Whale (Balaenoptera Acutorostrata): A Potential Fatty Sound Reception Pathway in a Baleen Whale."Anat Rec The Anatomical Record: Advances in Integrative Anatomy and Evolutionary Biology 295.6 (2012): 991-98. Web.