The Scientists Who Study Whale 'Defecation Events'

Whale poops fertilize ocean ecosystems, and also contain a wealth of information for marine scientists.

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Aug 20 2018, 6:34pm

Whales are among the most charismatic animals on the planet, endowed with a grace and majesty that has captivated humans for millennia. It’s only fitting, then, that their “defecation events,” the jaw-dropping moments when these ocean giants let loose their bowels in massive plumes, are a real frontrunner for the most magnificent poops in the animal kingdom.

Fortunately, scientists at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute (OSUMMI) have pioneered new ways of documenting these incredible defecation events with aerial drones. Leigh Torres, an OSUMMI marine ecologist, is a specialist in this field who has helped capture illuminating views of gray whales for several years.

While many teams have observed marine mammals with drones, Torres and her colleagues have homed in on the wealth of information contained in whale fecal samples, which are especially useful for understanding the hormonal intricacies of these animals.

“Our work using drones is unique because we are linking body condition data with hormone data, and because we are using drones to observe behavior and better understand foraging tactics,” Torres told me in an email.

This pursuit of samples makes the OSUMMI team’s drone footage extra delightful. As opposed to the familiar “thar she blows!” call associated with whale-tracking, the crew yells “POOP!” when a defecation event is observed, and rushes to scoop up the samples before the plume dissipates. Once transported back to the lab for analysis, these samples unveil hidden secrets about whale life.

“So far, we have begun to document the reproductive and stress hormone variation of gray whales for the first time,” Torres said. “We are just beginning to see differences between sexes and age classes. Once we get this baseline understanding, we can begin to ask questions about what impacts cause stress for whales, such as from ocean noise.”

The team also wants to cross-reference footage of fatter and skinnier whales with their feces, to see if blubber has an impact on stress levels. To paint a more full picture of gray whale health and behavior, these methods can be combined with DNA samples taken from whale blow holes, which apparently smell far worse than the relatively mild odor of the poop plumes.

Read More: Researchers Are Livestreaming the Sound of the Bottom of the Sea

In addition to being a boon to scientists, defecation events are a productive fertilizer for ocean life. Whales have been dubbed “marine ecosystem engineers” due to the enormous enrichment provided by their digested offerings, which is yet another reason it is so crucial for scientists to collect and study these momentous events.

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