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Whales Have Major Earwax

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 17, 2013

Majestic, but messy: Big whale, big earwax

Majestic, but messy: Big whale, big earwax

Almost everything about blue whales is big, except their pinhole ears. And I know it’s early in the story, but, fair warning, this is where things get kind of gross: Because of those tiny ears, whales don’t have any good way to get rid of their earwax.

The wax—scientists call it cerumen, which sounds so much nicer—just builds up over an animal’s entire lifetime. It forms a stick like a crayon or a candle, but waxy, roughed up, fibrous, with a familiar yellow-brown coloration. “It’s not really appealing,” is the understated way Stephen Trumble, a marine mammal physiologist at Baylor University, puts it.

A few years ago, Trumble and a colleague were chatting about whale earwax while strolling across campus to the coffee shop. Trumble mentioned that biologists sometimes use the lamina, or layers, in these earplugs to age a whale, and a light blinked on in Sascha Usenko’s head. “Earplugs?” he said.

Yes, earplugs. That 10 inches of earwax

Yes, earplugs. That’s 10 inches of earwax

Usenko, an environmental chemist, had been analyzing sediment cores to construct a modern history of pollution in various national parks in the American West. Maybe, he wondered aloud, they could try the same thing on a whale’s earplug?

They phoned Michelle Berman at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History to ask if she happened to have a whale’s earplug handy. By good luck—and this is the sort of thing that makes science so wonderful—she replied, “I have one in my freezer. It may take me a while to find it.”

The result  … to read the rest of this story, click here.

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