Whales Record Years of Pollution —in Their Earwax
10-inch tube shows when animal was exposed to chemicals
By Matt Cantor, Newser User
Posted Sep 17, 2013 11:27 AM CDT
Whale earwax can tell us a lot about ocean pollution.   (Shutterstock)

(Newser) – Learning the story of a blue whale's life is easy, if a little disgusting: It's all in the earwax. It forms a tube in the animal's long ear canal, "kind of like a candle that's been roughed up a bit," a researcher tells NPR. When extracted, the substance can tell you approximately how old the whale is, when it was feeding and migrating, and more—including when it was exposed to certain pollutants, the Smithsonian reports.

Scientists examined the 10-inch "earplug" of a blue whale that washed up on California's coast in 2007. The animal had been exposed to mercury, DDT, and other pollutants, both from its mother and likely through the krill it ate. "DDT was banned 30 years before this animal was born, but it was still exposed to DDT over its entire lifetime," says the researcher. In the future, experts may learn more from decades-old earwax samples kept in museums. "For a majority of the species on the planet, lifetime profiles such as these are simply unattainable," the scientists note. But they believe similar research is possible in several species of baleen whale.

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Showing 3 of 11 comments
Feb 28, 2015 10:44 AM CST
The ocean always has been and always will be an illegal dumping ground for toxic waste. Cheap, greedy basturds don't have any morals and just pays some grunt on a boat a cheap wage to take it out and dump it. Even if caught they never get more than a slap on the wrist. Every country from richest to poorest has someone dumping hazardous waste. DDT was around many years after it was supposedly banned in the US. It was banned for most applications, but was still allowed in certain applications. Mexico, Vietnam, Thailand and many other countries still use it. And yet everyone wonders what happens when whales and alike beach themselves!!!
Sep 23, 2013 1:28 PM CDT
I hate it when that happens?
Sep 18, 2013 9:56 PM CDT
That's one hell of a wax museum.