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whale poop and phytoplankton, the dynamic duo fighting climate change
We all poop. Worms do it, cows do it, humans do it—it’s a fact of life. But did you know that some poop matters more than others? Out of all the animal poop on earth, whale poop takes home the gold every time, and for a very special reason. No matter where you live—the valleys of the Himalayas, the Melbourne coastline, or the landlocked prairies of Kentucky—more than 50% of the air you breathe is produced by the ocean. More specifically, it’s thanks to little marine organisms called phytoplankton and the marvels of whale poop.
You’ve heard how mitochondria are the powerhouse of cells? Well, phytoplankton are the powerhouse of the ocean. Invisible to the human eye, these microscopic marine algae are the foundation of the food web. And one of their main sources of nutrients is whale poop!
Whales dive deep into the ocean to feed, and swim back up to the surface to breathe and excrete waste full of nutrients. When whales migrate to feeding and breeding grounds, they form “the great whale conveyor belt”—a system that keeps key nutrients moving throughout the sea. With some whale species weighing more than 150,000 lbs, you can imagine how much poop is available for phytoplankton to eat! Phytoplankton are consumed by zooplankton and krill, which in turn fuel larger fish, sharks, and marine mammals. So ultimately, an abundance of whale poop means an abundance of phytoplankton and diverse marine life. The whole ocean thrives!
By now, we’re all aware of the consequences of increased carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. With the burning of fossil fuels practically everywhere we look, excessive CO2 emissions are contributing to rising global temperatures, impacts on human health and changing ecosystems. We’re already seeing the consequences in our ocean. Warming waters and rising acidity levels are killing coral reefs, dissolving crustacean shells, and disrupting the balance for marine life.
Luckily, phytoplankton are saving the day, yet again! And it’s all thanks to their role in the ocean’s carbon cycle. Similar to plants, phytoplankton capture large amounts of CO2 and convert it to useable cellular energy. Not only does this remove carbon from the atmosphere, but it also produces the oxygen that animals need to survive. When phytoplankton are eaten by other marine animals, the carbon continues to pass through the food web. If phytoplankton die before becoming a meal, they sink to the ocean floor, storing and locking away the carbon they’ve absorbed. Through this process known as the “biological pump”, billions of metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere are transferred to the bottom of the ocean every year, where its environmental impact is reduced.
So, let’s review what we’ve learned. Whale poop feeds phytoplankton, the tiny marine algae that produce more than half of the world’s oxygen. Phytoplankton feed small fish, who work their way up the food chain to feed larger animals like sharks and dolphins. More animals in the ocean means more biodiversity and a healthy functioning ecosystem (that we are responsible for actively protecting). Add in the phytoplankton's ability to transfer and store mass amounts of carbon, and the ocean acts as our greatest ally in the fight against climate change. Whale poop to the rescue!
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