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Poo’s Clues

A fresh scoop of blue whale poop collected for prey analysis. Look closely and you will see strands of black baleen.
A fresh scoop of blue whale feces collected for prey analysis. Look closely and you will see strands of black baleen. What does that mean? Read on to find out! (Photo by Asha de Vos)

I have a completely healthy obsession with poo … particularly of the animal variety, mostly of the whale variety. Whether you like it or not, there is something ridiculously eye-catching about this stuff. Don’t believe me? Did you see the photo?

I am a firm believer that blue whale poo is the most beautiful around. But, like any good scientist I am open to being challenged. What does the scat of your study species look like? Do you work with the #prettiestpoo?

Believe it or not, my own journey with the Northern Indian Ocean pygmy blue whales was first inspired by a chance encounter with a floating pile of poo. The significance and excitement of that moment remains with me to this day. It suddenly made me feel like Sherlock Holmes, eager to learn more about who, what, and when as I worked through the clues before me. The next few moments went something like this …

I immediately realized from the immensity of the patch that the poo came from a very large animal—nothing smaller than a whale. The fact that it was still at the surface and clumpy (rather than dissolving slowly into the ocean) told me it was “fresh,” and that the source was close by. How close? Well, studies on fin whale digestion reveal that mean passage time of food from the fore stomach to the anus is approximately 15–18 hours. Fin whales do not live in Sri Lankan waters but the species that do are comparably sized, so knowing this gave me a sense that whatever left this clue was feeding locally. The brilliant red coloration meant the whale was feeding on small shrimp-like crustaceans (whose exoskeletons are responsible for the color), and was therefore a baleen whale. This left me with one of two choices, because blue whales and Bryde’s whales are the only baleen whale species regularly seen in Sri Lankan waters. Finally, by scooping it out of the water and digging through (it’s very silty and soft to the touch) I noticed coarse pieces of black baleen. What did this mean? Well, only one thing—this sample came from a blue whale, because they have black baleen plates while Bryde’s whales have ash-grey baleen.

Mystery Solved!

This red poop belonged to a blue whale that’s actually mottled grey in color with black comb-life feeding structures—sounds a bit like an explosion in a paint factory, really.

Bits of baleen I dug out of a sample of blue whale poop with my pinky finger for scale. Blue whales typically have about 300 baleen plates that can grow to about a metre in length.
Bits of baleen I dug out of a sample of blue whale feces with my pinky finger for scale. Blue whales typically have about 300 baleen plates that can grow to about a meter in length. (Photo by Asha de Vos)

While I might sound crazy, my poo-obssession and uncontrollable excitement is grounded in science because I know how important it is for the ecosystem. Honestly, I think it is important that you know, too, so here’s the simplified story:

When whales dive to deep depths to feed and swim up to the surface to breathe they often release plumes of fecal matter. This “whale pump” brings nutrients such as iron up from the darkness and into the “photic zone” near the surface which has plenty of sunlight but often lacks these nutrients. When nutrients and sunlight come together, plankton growth occurs, making whale poo a really important ocean fertilizer. In fact, scientists have shown that whale fecal matter collected in the southern ocean carries between 0.27–10 million times more vital micronutrients than the surrounding seawater. Pretty amazing, really!

Primary producers such as the phytoplankton that thrives on whale poo form the base of all marine food chains, so more of them means more of the creatures that depend on them (including fish). Also, plants in the ocean generate 50-70 percent of the oxygen we breathe; that’s more than twice the amount produced by rain forests. More of them means a healthier planet for us.

Most importantly, it serves as a reminder that everything around us is part of a larger puzzle and every drop is a clue to a different world. So, don’t pooh-pooh the poo. Instead, explore, question, be curious—you never know where it might lead you!

Cover page from a 2007 edition of Popular Science that ran a story titled 'The Worst Jobs in Science 2007'. I beg to differ Pop Sci, so does Don Croll who gave me this magazine cut out as an early christmas gift just this morning. I'm here to defend whale faeces to the bitter end!
Cover page from a 2007 edition of Popular Science that ran a story titled “The Worst Jobs in Science 2007.” I beg to differ Pop Sci, and so does Don Croll who gave me this magazine cut-out as an early Christmas gift just this morning. I’m here to defend whale feces to the bitter end! (Photo by Asha de Vos)

Follow Asha’s field journal as she prepares for her upcoming expedition and donate on https://openexplorer.com/expedition/savingbluewhalesfromshipstrike.

Read More by Asha de Vos

Comments

  1. BINA PAUL
    USA
    September 2, 2015, 10:59 pm

    Watching Big Blue Live earlier this evening made me think of you…as
    any reference of, or program about blue whales always does. What marvelous creatures they are. There is something. – for the lack of a
    better word – sacred about them.

    You are fortunate for doing this work and so are they to have you on their side. I wish you great success in your mission.

  2. Shehani Noakes
    Melbourne, Australia
    December 16, 2014, 3:50 pm

    Very interesting article Asha! Fascinating.