The Importance of Whale Poo

Tucker: a poo-sniffing dog

Tucker: a poo-sniffing dog

Good old Tucker is a whale researcher. He is trained to lead humans to where they can collect poo from the Northwest’s resident Orcas for analysis. 

Sam Wasser trains dogs from animal shelters to find the scat of animals on land and sea. He auditions them by bouncing a ball in front of them and choosing the ones that go all hyper, according to a friend. Using a chance to play with the ball as a reward, they are trained to identify the scat of various creatures. The Orca focus has been funded through UW’s College of the Environment under a grant from Sea Grant WA and NOAA. Sad to say that funding for collection is not happening this year.

Food Chains: Bottom Up

They analyze the poo samples for both adequate nutrition and presence of toxins. Tracking nutrients from the Orcas’ preferred diet of salmon is especially important since these long-lived creatures are slow to change foraging patterns. It will take more funding and research to connect these results to climate change.

Trophic Cascades: Top Down 

Scientists are also studying how whales change climate, an example of trophic (nutritional) cascades.This is where the big animals at the top of the food chain stir things up not so much by what they take in as by what they put out. How and where whales defecate has a big effect on the biochemistry of the ocean. It serves as a kind of “whale pump”, moving chemical elements up and down the different sea depths.

The Poonami Effect

In the Southern Ocean, iron defecation by the 12,000-strong population of sperm whales removes approximately 200,000 tonnes of carbon per year from the atmosphere.
— Trish Lavery et al., Royal Society

George Monbiot’s compelling 5-minute video brings this cycle to life. Although he is not a research scientist, this process is well-documented by solid data. As he describes it:
Whales feed at depth, in waters that are often pitch dark. Then they return to the surface: to the photic zone, where there's enough light for photosynthesis to happen. There they release what biologists call fecal plumes: vast outpourings of poo; poonami’s. These plumes are rich in iron and nitrogen, nutrients which are often very scarce in the surface waters.”

If you have time, his short film is a first-hand view of this underwater world. He and his colleagues use their considerable video skills to help us understand the ocean in a particularly lovely way. And, yes, they include some great shots of poonami’s.