Why are whales important to our ecosystem?
Whales are a critical part of our marine ecosystems and vital to the health of ocean waters and the environment. The giant and majestic mammals help to keep thousands of species alive and thriving. They’re also among some of the most intelligent of all the ocean’s inhabitants.
There are countless reasons these animals are so vital to our world and many of these may surprise you. Here’s everything you need to know about them and the important jobs they do to maintain the health of our planet.
Whales inhabit every ocean and are the largest of all the creatures living there. How large? They range in size from 600 pounds to the colossal blue whale who can weigh over 200 tons and grow as long as a 100 feet basketball court.
Whale offspring are called calves and, when they’re born, are typically about 25 percent of their mother’s size in length. Whales have a gestation period of around 11-16 months and then are born tail-first in order to prevent drowning. Once their offspring is born, whale mothers nurse their young and develop close bonds.
As a species, whales are divided up into two categories: toothed and untoothed. Toothed whales have teeth that hunt and eat squid, seals, as well as fish. Examples of toothed whales include dolphins, porpoises, orcas and sperm whales. Narwhals are also considered toothed whales and the horn that they’re known for is actually one huge tooth that protrudes through their lips.
Generally speaking, baleen whales are larger than toothed whales. Instead of teeth, these whales feed through fringed plates that strain their food and are made of a material similar to fingernails called baleen. Examples of baleen whales include blue whales, right whales, humpbacks whales, and bowhead whales.
Whales speak using vocalizations, known as whale calls, that can actually be heard for miles under the water. These vocals are combinations of cries, howls, and moans that can be made for hours.
Marine mammal research efforts
Marine biologists are continuing to conduct increasing numbers of research studies that will help the world learn more about whales. That’s because they believe that by studying how marine mammals such as whales live in the ocean, we’re able to learn what can be done to support the kind of healthy marine society that’s critical to their survival.
What are experts looking for in their studies? Studies often place a huge focus on the large animals’ behavior, language, intelligence, echolocation, and their environmental impact.
What studies have shown about how whales live
Whales help to regulate the food chain by making sure animal species aren’t overpopulating in the ocean.
Many whale species will spend most of their lives together hunting and protecting each other from danger. This is similar in a lot of ways to how we as humans live. It is also similar to how primates and elephants have been shown to spend their time.
In studies, marine mammal societies demonstrate a high level of intelligence that includes the ability to self recognize. This characteristic isn’t found in a lot of animal species. Their vocalization is also believed to be a complex language that some researchers think could help us communicate with them and protect them against man-made noise that can be harmful.
Studying cetacean species such as whales, porpoises, and dolphins have taught us a lot about their intelligence and have helped set up several protections for these mammals. Many feel they deserve some of the same rights as other similarly intelligent animals including humans.
By studying and learning more about these intelligent mammals, we have learned a lot about the animals’ sonar abilities and the ways that they use echolocation. This knowledge has also helped us to make the ocean more habitable for them.
Additionally, whale studies have shown more about how whale feeding habits contribute to regulating the environment and ecosystem in the ocean. This is partly because of how they regulate the food chain by making sure animal species aren’t overpopulating in the ocean. For example, a blue whale is responsible for consuming 40 million krill a day. If there were fewer blue whales, there would likely be enormous additional numbers of krill.
Surprise! Whale poop helps to offset atmospheric carbon
Studies have also shown that whales’ impact on the ocean ecosystem goes beyond food chain control. Researchers have learned that, believe it or not, whale poop will actually offset the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
Here’s how the process works. Nutrients in a single whale’s poop helps to stimulate the growth of phytoplankton. Phytoplankton pulls carbon straight from the atmosphere to help provide better quality breathing air for the entire planet including humans and animals.
If a single whale can stimulate some growth, multiple whales can do a lot more. In fact, scientists believe that whale sperm accounts for as much as 400,000 tons of carbon that has been extracted from our breathing air each year.
Phytoplankton growth that is fed by the carbon produced by whale poop also helps feed ocean species that survive off of phytoplankton as a food source. This phytoplankton helps fish eat allowing them to reproduce and survive. This also contributes to the stability of the food chain.
Tourism and the whale economy
The boom in whale watching has helped stimulate developing areas around the world as well as the wealthier countries.
Whale watching is a huge part of ocean tourism and has turned into an international recreational activity. Billions are spent by people who are hoping to see the largest mammals on earth in their beautiful natural habitats.
The boom in whale watching has helped stimulate developing areas around the world as well as the wealthier countries. This money has helped economies grow and put places with large whale populations on the map as major tourist destinations. In many of these areas, luxury whale watching cruises and vacations have brought a lot of traffic and money to places in need of a tourism boost.
Whales haven’t always been a protected species. There was a time when whales were poached and killed for oil, soap, clothing material, and transmission additives. The whaling era was responsible for killing off several species and making others endangered.
During this time, we saw warming temperatures, melting glaciers, and a decrease in ocean species. Whaling during the industrial revolution caused global warming and environmental impacts that we can still feel today.
Certain countries have also been known to eat whales. If people are found to be whaling today, they can face serious jail time and monetary penalties. Despite it being illegal, people are still known to be hunting these majestic creatures in certain parts of the world.
According to Campaign Whale, while whaling is illegal today, whales still face dangers from climate change, pollution, boats, and becoming accidentally trapped in nets.
A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:
- Humpback whales are having problems. Here’s what scientists think are going on – Science 101
Are humpback whales in trouble? Maybe.
- Why are so many gray whales dying – Science 101
Unexpected numbers of gray whales are dying. Scientists want to know why.