Research Tracks

A publication of the Office of the Vice Provost for Research at Baylor University

Baylor researchers discover secrets hidden in whale ear wax

September 24, 2013 by Baylor OVPR | 0 comments

Scientists have known for years that the layers of ear wax produced by whales can help determine an animal’s age. But now, research by two Baylor faculty members has shown that there is a lot more we can learn from these foot-long plugs of waxy buildup.

Dr. Sascha Usenko, assistant professor of environmental science, and Dr. Stephen Trumble, assistant professor of biology, discovered that blue whales’ ear wax plugs function as a sort of time capsule, storing traces of contaminants and hormones that can yield knowledge about the whale’s development and exposure to pollutants throughout its lifetime.

Whales produce a new layer of ear wax every six months, so the placement of chemicals in the wax plug allowed Usenko and Trumble to pinpoint chemical exposure to a particular time in a whale’s life.  This knowledge will greatly improve scientists’ ability to measure the timing and impact of pollution on whales and their ecosystems.

The groundbreaking study, published in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, has received attention from news outlets around the world.  Click the links below to read more coverage of this exciting research.