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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Big Builders

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Monday, July 7, 2014/Categories: natural history, marine mammals, sustainability, environment

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville said: Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part.

A new article shows just how big an influence they have on the oceans worldwide.
 Knowingly or unknowingly, whales are the marine equivalent of engineers. Most species were hunted almost to extinction but now the research shows it was a big mistake to ignore their ecosystem scale influences.

According to the  University of Vermont , Joe Roman and a team of conservation biologists have tallied several decades of research on whales from around the world showing that they make a huge difference on the seas. The whales provide a powerful and positive influence on the function of oceans, global carbon storage, and the health of commercial fisheries. Whaling from the 19th Century until the mid-20th dramatically reduced the biomass and abundance of the great whales but many populations are recovering and restoring balance to the ecosystems.

In the Frontiers of Ecology and the Environment paper the researchers note: “The decline in great whale numbers, estimated to be at least 66% and perhaps as high as 90%, has likely altered the structure and function of the oceans but recovery is possible and in many cases is already underway. With their huge metabolic demands, whales are the ocean’s ecosystem engineers: they eat fish and invertebrates, are prey to other predators like killer whales, and distribute nutrients through the water in the feces. Even their carcasses, dropping to the seafloor, provide habitat for many species that only exist on these 'whale falls'."

Ocean Fertilizing by "Whale Pump"  (credit: University of Vermont)

However, a question remains on motivation. If the whales consciously know what they are doing to their environment, this would indicate an active recognition of their engineering goals. An animation posed this question of species intelligence with a conversation between a human and a whale. The Song of the Spindle was a hit film during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival:

Whales are the "big builders on the block" and they could be even more mindful of their world than we ever realized. If so, this would be a big discovery all its own.


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