Whale poop and the meaning of life

You read that right.  Last week, I took my nerdiness to a whole new level when I willingly joined my friend Jessica for a lecture about whale poop.

Yes, it’s a thing.  It’s orange, it floats, and it stinks to high heaven (when it comes from a right back whale).  And it’s freaking amazing.

I never thought I could sit for an hour to hear someone talk about poop, but the scientist who spoke to us (Dr. Kathleen Hunt) was incredible.  Here’s a strong, smart woman, leading the way in scientific discoveries via POOP.  Can it get any better than that?  Here’s a crash course on why whale poop is so fabulous:

  • Mammal poop carries a ton of hormone information, and can tell scientists all about estrogen, testosterone, an animal’s reproductive status, and their stress levels.
  • Poop is a much better indicator of stress levels than blood samples, because taking blood always stresses animals out (how could it not?) while poop gives you an indicator of how what an animal’s hormone levels were like 1-2 days earlier.  This rocked my world.  Because of this, poop is better than blood.
  • Another earth-shaker – blood tests aren’t even an option for whales, since no great whales live in captivity (and you can’t trap a live whale for tests).  This is obviously true, but still crazy to think about.
  • The whale poop we talked about (from the right back whale) is actually collected by going near where the whale surfaced and scooping it up with a net.  Dogs can help with the search, as they can smell the foul stuff a nautical mile away.
  • Some animals are always a little bit high-strung (just like people!).  More on this later…
  • Not all stress is bad.  Mating is stressful, and being pregnant is stressful on your body, but you can adapt to those and other natural stress.  It’s the unexplained stress that you have to be careful about.

Dr. Hunt has been working on fecal testing since 1999, and started this process on animals where she could test blood and poop (elephants, grizzly bears, baboons, etc.) which is how she confirmed that they carry the same information.  Now, this process is being used all over the animal world (especially in zoos).  It’s being used to find when animals are fertile, confirm when they’re pregnant, and see if they’re stressed out.  One group of scientists has a grant to study every single elephant in North America to see their stress levels, and see how they correlate to diet, environment, peers, etc.

As promised, Dr. Hunt also delivered on “the meaning of life.”  I thought it would relate to the beginning of the lecture, where she talked about all the things that could stress whales out:

  • Sonar testing (underwater, especially in the Caribbean)
  • Nearby nets (they may not trap whales in tuna nets, but it’s still not great to be around them all the time)
  • Shipping operations (same)
… and the consequences of those things:
  • Slowed reproductive rates
  • Increased chance of getting sick
  • Shorter lifespan overall
I assumed the conclusion would be “Avoid stressing yourself out!  Whales can’t control their environment but YOU CAN, and if you want to live long and prosper, you should cut out unnecessary stress.”
But no – after an hour of talking about poop, the lessons were much more lighthearted, and included:
  • The lowliest, most humblest thing may be just the thing you need.
  • No matter how weird your life is, it may get weirder.
  • One man’s poop is another man’s gold.
  • Nothing stinks like success.
  • Make a difference any way you can (and have fun!!).
Then she gave us a list of the ten worst and five best smelling poops (Worst: human! Best: white tailed deer).  And then she invited us to her whale poop lab at the aquarium, an adventure I am wicked excited for, and which you’ll all have to read about early next year.
Until then, you can read the New England Aquarium’s blog about Dr. Hunt’s latest work, studying whale’s blow (“I only want to study things where there are lots of puns and jokes to be made,” she said.)
Are you convinced yet that whale poop is the best thing ever?  If not, I have more to share!
This (free!) lecture was hosted by the New England Aquarium, one of my favorite spots in Boston, especially because you can meet their harbor seals  without paying a single dollar.  The penguins are another story, but still totally worth it.  Come with Jess and me to a lecture next year!

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