Waxing About Whales

whale wax 0320

So I am pondering ear wax. Mine, sure, but mostly that belonging to whales.

Up until a few months ago, I gave very little consideration to any ear wax other than my own. In fact, I had no idea that whales produced ear wax. If you had asked me and I really, really stopped to think about it, I might have supposed that dogs and cats produce some, based on how the insides of their ears feel, but I would have had to really, really think about it. And even then it would never have occurred to me that whales particularly have ears, let alone ears that produce wax.

Until one day when I was killing time at my chiropractor’s office (we all are familiar with the concept of a “waiting room,” I’m sure), and a National Geographic had a picture of whale ear wax. It comes in 10-inch long increments, because whales obviously do not use Q-tips with the vigor I do.

Now, I looked at this picture and thought, “That’s really weird,” and then I went on with my life, not giving whale ear wax any more thought, even though it should have opened up this whole new world of awareness. I did not give it any more thought, that is, until Day One of my incarceration, when I somehow, on my computer, happened onto a 2018 article from The Atlantic about whale ear wax.

Writer Ed Yong had lots to say about whale ear wax, which turns out to be the biological equivalent of ice cores that scientists use as part of their wacky plot to assure us human-caused global warming is a real thing.

Whale ear wax scientists Stephen Trumble and Sascha Usenko of Baylor — okay, I doubt that’s their overarching scientific discipline, but Mr. Yong failed to explain exactly why they took up whale ear wax research — discovered that because whale ear wax changes color by the season —

[Not that you care at all, but I have noticed that mine can change color by the Q-tip.]

— from light to dark, it produces bands, like tree rings only vertical, allowing the scientists to learn all sorts of things while accurately dating it. (Not as in “going out with” whale ear wax, but using it to measure time.) The first blue whale they studied, for instance, hit puberty at nine years of age, based on a 200 percent increase of testosterone showing up in the ear wax.

But what they really discovered, once they started looking into this matter of ear wax, was an entire history of the oceans. Cortisol, a hormone that serves as an indicator of stress and manifests itself in ear wax, at least in whales (no word on whether anyone is studying human ear wax), rises and falls in an exact line going back to the 1870s with the amount of whaling taking place on the seven seas. As more whales are hunted, so goes the collective stress level of whales.

Now I have to further confess that I thought the heyday of whale killing was the 1840s, and that it was based out of Nantucket, Mass. I don’t really know why I should think this, other than that’s around the time scientists started figuring out a variety of uses for the fossil-fuel crude found bubbling out of the ground in Pennsylvania, supplanting whale parts as a means of powering society.

But if I really thought this through — clearly, I have not contemplated anything I should have — and harkened back to that most reliable of all social studies, Star Trek, I should have remembered that the whole point of Movie #4 was to rescue whales from being hunted to complete extinction. In fact, in the big denouement, the Enterprise crew uncloaks its “borrowed” Klingon cruiser and scares the bejeebers out of a 1980s whaling crew just as they’re about to harpoon our hero humpbacks.

It turns out the 1960s were the actual whaling heyday, which possibly was good for humans but not really humanity and certainly not the whales, and that’s when whale cortisol levels hit their highest. There was also a spike during World War II, when whaling dropped but depth charges exploded, and there’s been also been a significant spike in the last 20 years despite almost no whaling “in the northern hemisphere.”

The wax scientists aren’t sure why, although they suspect rising ocean temperatures may play a part — plus they’re finding all kinds of crap in the ear wax, like pesticides and flame retardants. Humans, all of us, should be very proud of the legacy we’re leaving behind.

Mr. Yong’s article really left out a lot of information that I would like to know. He never explained where the scientists got their first plug of whale ear wax, although he did tell us where subsequent plugs have come from, sort of. The Smithsonian turns out to have been harboring “pallet upon pallet” of whale ear waxes, and someone there was contemplating throwing them away when the Baylor scientists came calling.

And they’ve found a trove of 4,000 at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottaawa, of which they’ve received 100. (Or had, as of the 2018 writing of the article.)

But what were these museums doing with all these whale waxes in the first place? If you read your Moby Dick, which I did once long ago under scholastic duress, you might recall that those Nantucket whalers used just about everything that came from the whale. I seem to recall a rather bizarre whaling-ship ritual featuring a whale foreskin detailed in the pages of the book, which right there gives you a whole new concept of “moby dick.”

But apparently, in 150-plus years of aggressive worldwide whaling, no one ever came up for a use with the ear wax. Did whalers just toss them in a pile on the deck of the ship and when they got home handed it to the nearest collector of oddities, who eventually forwarded them to a prestigious institute like the Smithsonian or the Canadian Museum of Nature?

Mr. Yong doesn’t go there, and perhaps neither should I, although once you open up the whole ball of whale ear wax there may be no stopping me. I may be waxing enthusiastic about this topic for a long time. Break out the Q-tips!

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