I accepted a 1 year position at Baylor University to work with Steve Trumble (physiologist) and Sascha Usenko (environmental chemist) to learn the ropes and contribute to their whale earplug project. They have developed a method to examine lifetime stress, reproductive, and contaminant exposure histories using the earplug as a model tissue. Baleen whales accumulate wax in their ear canal (which is closed to the external environment and never gets cleaned out with a Qtip!) and in many species this wax plug forms annual growth layers. The layers, or lamina, can be sampled to generate chemical profiles that represent the whale’s entire life. This has major implications for learning about stress levels, especially for species that encounter ship noise, oil and gas exploration or chemical exposure. The focus of my work will be on an earplug collected from a bowhead whale. For my part, I’m interested to learn how to measure these new [to me] markers and hope to use these skills in my ongoing work looking at chemical profiles in baleen.
Bowhead whale art via 33rdsquare.
A: Diagram of whale earplug (d) that sits next to the earbone structure (b) in the skull (a). From Trumble et al. 2013 PNAS.