Quirks & Quarks

The Nutrient Cycle Is 'Pooped'

Whale poop is an important nutrient source in Marine ecosystems, and new research shows that the 20th century decline in whales due to hunting impoverished the oceans.

Reduced whale numbers mean their fertilizing waste is in short supply

Humpback Whale
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Massive declines and extinctions in whales, large North American land animals, and fish and sea birds, have resulted in damage to a nutrient recycling system essential to fertilizing the planet. The process begins with a cycle of nutrients, such as phosphorous, making their way from eroded rocks on mountains, into the oceans. The recycling begins as a transfer of these nutrients through waste - mostly whale poop - back onto the land via birds.

But a new study by Dr. Christopher Doughty, from The School of Geography and The Environment at The University of Oxford, has found that the entire system is now less than 10 percent of what it once was, and that for phosphorous in particular, it is about 23 percent of former capacity.

The decline in whale hunting in recent years is part of a larger-scale solution.

Related Links

Paper in PNAS
- University of Oxford release
- University of Vermont release
Scientific American story