Whales keep diaries in their earwax?

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

whales
Bayler biologists discovered secrets about a whale’s life by examining their earwax!

I only know a handful of people that keep a diary, where they write down exciting events, deep feelings, and secret thoughts. As you can imagine, it’s a very personal book. What if I told you that whales kept diaries, too? Would you want to sneak a peek at that?

Well, scientists from Baylor University got a hold of a whale diary, and they discovered some pretty interesting secrets! Before your imagination runs too wild, it wasn’t a typical journal with private thoughts scrawled across sheets of paper, complete with cute little doodles. Instead, the diary was in the form of earwax! I know, sounds funky, but just as trees grow a new ring around their trunks every year, whales get a new layer of wax in their ears every 6 months.

By looking at the chemicals inside of each layer, researchers can get a good idea of what a whale experienced in its lifetime. The biologists from Baylor University took a foot-long plug of earwax from the skull of a dead 12-year-old male whale and uncovered many secrets! “It might be the only life history of any free-ranging animal,” said Stephen Trumble, a marine biologist at Baylor University. What kind of things did they find in the waxy diary?

For one, they could identify exactly when the mammal went through puberty – a period where the body changes as it leaves childhood and enters adulthood. Based on evidence from the wax, male whales begin puberty at around 9 years old, when their bodies make more of a chemical known as testosterone. Interestingly enough, there is also a spike in cortisol, which is a chemical linked to stress. What the heck do the large creatures have to be stressed about? “I saw that and I just chuckled,” Trumble said. “It was mixing with the big guys trying to [get a girlfriend], and probably getting a rough time from the other males.” It’s no different than what teenage boys go through as they crush on girls and get teased by their buddies!

Besides sad love struggles, the wax diary also revealed important information about the ocean environment from the time the whale was in its mommy’s belly to when it died. Because whales cover thousands of miles throughout their lifetimes, earwax is a great way to study ocean pollution, since different chemicals from the water stay in the substance.

The funniest part about the whole story, though, is how the earwax smelled! According to Tumble, it definitely wasn’t like walking through a rose garden. “Oh my gosh, I can’t even explain it,” he said. “They smell terrible.” I hope he has a nose clip, because he’s planning to study some of the hundreds of whale earwax plugs in American museums.

Featured image courtesy of  NOAA Photo Library on Flickr. Image of whales swimming courtesy of Reunion Underwater Photography on Flickr.