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.
After the right whale cruise on the Gunter finished (with no more small boating days and no tags deployed), I started work on sampling bowhead whale baleen plate for stable isotope ratios. I’m looking at how stable isotope ratios in bowhead whale baleen have changed over the last several decades, and what we can attribute those changes to (climate change, primary production rates, sea ice loss, etc). Leah Danny (Wheaton College ‘13), a graduate of Intro to Marine Mammals and Biology of Whales, worked with me as a Guest Student at WHOI to complete the project. Leah is pictured next to the largest bowhead whale baleen plate that we sampled, at least twice her height. There is also a photo of a baleen plate being, by me and my trusty Subaru, transported from WHOI Shipping and Receiving to the lab – notice the baleen poking through the sun roof.
“The Arctic whales – bowheads, beluga, and narwhals – are the most tantalizing of all cetaceans. Rising and falling with the changing seasons of ice, they are barometers of an invisible world, spectrally floating within their bounded sea, locked into its cycle. They are philopatrous animals, loyal to the site of their birth, and the only whales to live in the Arctic throughout the year. One hundred thousand belugas swim in polar seas; the geographical remoteness of the less populous bowheads and their outriders, the narwhals, is such that they are seldom seen.”
Baleen palm trees at Duck Camp, Barrow AK
First day of survey from the 1273, Beaufort Sea
Dumpster art #1, Barrow AK