Saturday, April 26, 2008

Scoop the Poop Week - in the Ocean

I have to admit, this week’s topic—celebrating Scoop the Poop week—has turned my thoughts down strange and less traveled roads. I was remembering my 10th grade history teacher. Wonderful man named Mr. Flemming. One day in class he surprised us all by stating he refused to eat seafood. Now remember, I grew up in Rhode Island. That’s like living in Iowa and not eating corn. We students began a frenzy of questions. Surely he wasn’t serious. Maybe he didn’t eat fish, but he must eat clams? No. Perhaps shrimp or scallops? No. He had to eat Tuna, even if it was just the stuff in the can? Uh uh. How could this be? He very simply explained. “I don’t eat fish for the same reason I don’t put my meatloaf in the toilet. Where do you think all those fish go?” Where indeed.

As this memory rattled around in my head, it got me wondering. If an elephant – the worlds largest land mammal- produces over 500 lbs of poo a day, what could a whale be capable of? And does anyone ever risk stepping in it? My research found some interesting facts, the greatest one being that there are real people who scoop the poop of whales.

In 2007, Whale Feces Researcher was ranked one of the 10 worst jobs in Science. Surprise, surprise. But, why was this even a job? It seems we learn rather a lot from whale poo, more than we can by merely observing and/or tagging whales. The poop tells about general health and diet, but also hormone levels, genetics and can act as a pregnancy test. Scientists can actually distinguish individual whales by their poo. And unlike the whale itself, who spends little time near the surface and may not take kindly to being approached, the whale’s poop will float atop the water for a good hour or more, making it rather easy to collect.

How do you find whale poop? With dogs of course. Once again the amazing olfactory senses of our best animal friend come to our aid. Poop sniffing dogs frequently grace the boats of researchers, helping them to find the fecal field. The scent carries well over open water and the dog can usually catch a whiff more than a mile away.

Interested in the other 9 Worst Jobs in Science? Of course you are. Go ahead and peek. I won’t tell.

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