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If you think you’ve got ear wax issues, thank your lucky Q-tip (note: do not use Q-tips to clear your ears!) you’re not a whale.
The giants of the sea produce proportionally large quantities of ear wax, around a foot and half long and weighing roughly two pounds, and scientists have been storing the golden ear treasure collected from whales for decades.
A waxy historical catalog: Just like rings on a tree trunk, ear wax in whales is added in layers, and since they don’t have opposable thumbs or fingers, whales can’t jam anything in there to disrupt this biological record keeper. Toxins and other chemicals are trapped in the wax, and analysis of the samples can deliver surprising insights into the environmental conditions and trials and tribulations a whale experiences during its life. Wise biologists and museum curators have preserved the ear wax plugs from dead whales for centuries with the very hope that they would one day yield important information.
Wax on, Wax off: Stephen Trumble, a comparative physiologist at Baylor University, and a team of researchers have accepted the somewhat funky task. Each layer of wax contains roughly six months worth of information, and takes days to separate for analysis. The team analyzed 20 of the wax samples, and published their findings in the November issue of Nature Communications.
What did they discover? For starters, Trumble found a correlation between the height of whaling activities on the world’s oceans and elevated levels of stress-induced hormone production. They also hypothesize that elevated cortisol levels in whales during World War II were caused by increased noise and disruption from bombs, ships and submarines. Additionally, they noticed a pattern of whales being more stressed as global ocean temperatures have risen, especially since the 1990s.
Back to the Wax: “This represents the best available science on the non-lethal effects of whaling and is a major advancement in this field,” Nick Kellar, a cetacean biologist with the NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California, told National Geographic.
There’s still lots of work to be done to fully understand what’s stressing out whales, which means diving back into those ear wax samples.