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Ear Wax From Whales Keeps Record Of Ocean Contaminants
NPR ^ | September 16, 2013 | RHITU CHATTERJEE

Posted on 09/17/2013 9:23:10 AM PDT by nickcarraway

How often do whales clean their ears? Well, never. And so, year after year, their ear wax builds up, layer upon layer. According to a study published Monday, these columns of ear wax contain a record of chemical pollution in the oceans.

The study used the ear wax extracted from the carcass of a blue whale that washed ashore on a California beach back in 2007. Scientists at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History collected the wax from inside the skull of the dead whale and preserved it. The column of wax was almost a foot long.

"It's kind of got that icky look to it," says Sascha Usenko, an environmental scientist at Baylor University who was involved in the study. "It looks kind of like a candle that's been roughed up a bit. It looks waxy and has got fibers. But it's pretty rigid — a lot stronger and a lot more stable than one would think."

There are light and dark layers within the column, each layer corresponding to six months of the whale's life, Usenko says. Historically the rings have been used to estimate the age of the whale, he says, "very similar to counting tree rings."

But age is not what Usenko was after. He studies how chemical pollutants like DDT and flame retardants are affecting whales. These pollutants get deposited in fatty tissues, such as whale blubber. And scientists often analyze blubber to see what whales are eating.

But analyzing blubber has a limitation, Usenko says.

"I would only know that organism — that [particular] animal was exposed to those contaminants," he says. "I wouldn't know when."

And so he thought, why not look at ear wax, which is also a fatty material that accumulates toxic chemicals.

Because each layer of wax corresponds to six months of a whale's life, by working through a plug of wax, Usenko could figure out when the animal was exposed to a particular chemical.

In this case, Usenko and his colleagues found that the whale had been exposed to worrisome pollutants throughout its lifetime.

He says the high levels of DDT surprised him.

"It's been 30-plus years since we've stopped using this compound," he says, "but to still see it showing up at such high concentrations — one of the dominant chemicals we see — was surprising."

Usenko and his team also determined that "a significant percentage of the exposure occurred in the first, early stages of the animal's life," when it was still nursing, and perhaps especially vulnerable. At that point, the pollutants came from the mother, through her milk, the scientist says.

Usenko says he can't tell just from looking at the wax whether these chemicals are hurting the development of young blue whales. He studied only one animal, and the ear wax alone can't reveal whether the chemicals caused harm.

But the ear wax also contained a record of fluctuations in stress hormones throughout the animal's life. And that, in combination with the chemical pollution data, may in the future provide better insight into the potential impacts of these chemicals on whales, Usenko says.

His current findings appear in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

But he needs more data, he says, so he has requested that scientists start collecting ear wax from dead beached whales the world over and mail the samples to him.


TOPICS: Outdoors; Pets/Animals; Science
KEYWORDS: earwax; ocean; oceanpollution; pollution; whales

1 posted on 09/17/2013 9:23:10 AM PDT by nickcarraway
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To: nickcarraway

Why does ear wax smell? To keep the bugs out.


2 posted on 09/17/2013 9:28:34 AM PDT by aimhigh
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To: nickcarraway

Poor things can’t possibly hear through a foot a ear wax. I need to apply for a gov grant to clean whale ears.


3 posted on 09/17/2013 9:30:11 AM PDT by bgill (This reply was mined before it was posted.)
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To: bgill
Poor things can’t possibly hear through a foot a ear wax. I need to apply for a gov grant to clean whale ears.

"We're gonna need a bigger Q-Tip".

4 posted on 09/17/2013 9:32:19 AM PDT by andy58-in-nh (Cogito, ergo armatum sum.)
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To: nickcarraway

Man if I only had some photoshop skills I could put some obie ears on mr. whale. What? HUH? Say again.


5 posted on 09/17/2013 9:33:26 AM PDT by rktman (Inergalactic background checks? King hussein you're first up.)
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To: nickcarraway

50th percentile lethal dose for a 150 lb man for DDT is 9 grams.

By contrast, the 50th percentile lethal dose for a 150 lb man for caffine is 5 grams.

No sprayer has ever been injured by exposure to DDT.

A researcher arrived at a DDT factory to research their cancer rate. The manager said, I cam make this really fast. We have no cancer rate.

The researcher said that can’t be true. You have 900 people who work here.

Well, the manager said, there is Bob. He came here 25 years ago, and was hired, although he had a terminal brain cancer, and was thought to have less than six weeks to live. In six months it was determined that his cancer was in remission. He is getting old, but he is afraid to quit. Aside from Bob, we have no cancer rate.


6 posted on 09/17/2013 9:34:03 AM PDT by donmeaker (Youth is wasted on the young.)
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To: donmeaker

DDT prevents cancer?


7 posted on 09/17/2013 9:35:07 AM PDT by nickcarraway
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To: nickcarraway

Cancer rates in DDT factories were very very low.

Make of it what you will.

How would it work? It may be that many cancers are caused by or the cause is vectored by parasites, and DDT affects the parasites.

By the way, with high school chemistry skills you can whip up a batch of DDT in your kitchen.


8 posted on 09/17/2013 9:38:33 AM PDT by donmeaker (Youth is wasted on the young.)
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To: nickcarraway

Let those TV guys put a wick in it and use it as a candle. Human ear wax didn’t work too well.


9 posted on 09/17/2013 9:41:05 AM PDT by Dr. Bogus Pachysandra ( Ya can't pick up a turd by the clean end!)
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To: nickcarraway
Buried at the end........He studied only one animal, and the ear wax alone can't reveal whether the chemicals caused harm.

So, it's an interesting idea, but completely without corroboration, and scientifically worthless at this point.

Didn't stop the "journalist" from drawing lots of conclusions about DDT, though. I'm surprised that there wasn't anything in there about Global Warming.

10 posted on 09/17/2013 9:41:55 AM PDT by wbill
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To: nickcarraway

Stuck on a bad blind date? Bring up this topic.


11 posted on 09/17/2013 9:49:15 AM PDT by Hardastarboard (Buck Off, Bronco Bama)
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To: rktman

I was thinking of re doing one of those old Currier and Ives type prints of a harpooner with a Q tip.


12 posted on 09/17/2013 10:14:35 AM PDT by CrazyIvan (Obama phones= Bread and circuits.)
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To: nickcarraway

Anyone ever heard of a substance called “ambergris”??..It’s Sperm Whale poo, but supposedly it’s worth a lot of money?


13 posted on 09/17/2013 12:53:15 PM PDT by JSDude1 (Is John Boehner the Neville Chamberlain of American Politics?)
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To: JSDude1
I wouldn't call it poo- it's a digestive secretion. Moby Dick has a whole chapter about it, after the Pequod tricks a French captain out of whale full of it. It's illegal in the United States. Unless, you're a whale, I guess.
14 posted on 09/17/2013 12:56:24 PM PDT by nickcarraway
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To: nickcarraway

Well yes technically it’s not simple whale poo, but for simplicities sake, I called it that ;)!


15 posted on 09/17/2013 1:43:19 PM PDT by JSDude1 (Is John Boehner the Neville Chamberlain of American Politics?)
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To: JSDude1

I don’t give a if it’s illegal, I wouldn’t be harming a whale by finding a chunk washed up on beach!


16 posted on 09/17/2013 1:44:32 PM PDT by JSDude1 (Is John Boehner the Neville Chamberlain of American Politics?)
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To: JSDude1

Yes. Ambergris is used as a ingredient in expensive perfumes.


17 posted on 09/17/2013 1:48:36 PM PDT by Constitution Day
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To: aimhigh

You have sniffed ear wax?

/ducks...


18 posted on 09/17/2013 1:50:28 PM PDT by Yehuda (Pres Obortion, Sen.McAnus, & Hillary Rotten Clinton all kiss the *ss of the muslim brotherhood.)
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To: Constitution Day

Any tips on finding it, I now live near the beach (Wilmington, N.C.)?


19 posted on 09/17/2013 2:41:23 PM PDT by JSDude1 (Is John Boehner the Neville Chamberlain of American Politics?)
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To: nickcarraway

Whales have ears?


20 posted on 09/17/2013 7:21:56 PM PDT by stevem
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