Saturday June 25, 2016

Floating poop reveals secrets of whale evolution

A right whale in the Bay of Fundy.

A right whale in the Bay of Fundy. (Annabel Beichman)

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Annabel Beichman, a Ph.D student at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues spent many days out at sea in the Bay of Fundy, searching out pods of right whales and then sieving smelly floating whale faeces from the water.  It was a dirty job, but only way to sample the bacteria from the living whales guts - their microbiome.  

And analysis of what bacteria were present and what they could do led to a surprising insight into how gigantic whales make such a successful living from eating tiny aquatic crustaceans.  They found that the whales, though now carnivorous, were using a suite of capabilities evolved when their ancestors were terrestrial plant-eaters.

They were using these systems, evolved to break down difficult to digest plant material, to break down the hard exoskeletons of their shrimp-like prey - material ordinarily discarded by most predators. This likely means the whales get about 10% more calories from their food than other animals get from the same diet - a bonus that likely helps explain how they grow so large.

Related Links

Paper in Nature
- Harvard release
Science News story
- Science magazine story