Whales Found to be 'Engineers' of Ocean Ecosystem

  • Doug Horn , Design & Trend Staff Writer
  • Jul, 06, 2014, 02:10 PM

Whales are respected far and wide as massive mammals of the sea. Even still, there is little ecological importance placed on whales, as over-harvesting them has become common practice over the years.

Scientists from the University of Vermont, however, have now discovered that whales are the great engineers and curators of the ocean, placing a new emphasis on the urgency of saving them.

According to Daily Digest, "Baleen and sperm whales, known collectively as the 'great whales,' include the largest animals to have ever lived on Earth. With huge metabolic demands, great whales are the ocean's ecosystem engineers: they eat many fish and invertebrates, and distribute nutrients through the water."

Even whale carcasses, which drop all the way to the seafloor, provide habitat for many species that exist only on these "whale falls."

Joe Roman, biologist at the University of Vermont, said, ""Among their many ecological roles, whales recycle nutrients and enhance primary productivity in areas where they feed. Whales do this by feeding at depth and releasing fecal plumes near the surface - which supports plankton growth - a remarkable process described as a 'whale pump.'"

Whales are also able to move nutrients thousands of miles from productive feeding areas at high latitudes to calving areas at lower latitudes, according to the Westside Story.

"As humpbacks, gray whales, sperm whales and other cetaceans recover from centuries of over hunting, we are beginning to see that they also play an important role in the ocean," Roman added.

Often times, commercial fishermen see whales as competition. This new paper shows that there is a strong body of evidence that indicates the opposite can be true. The recovery of whales could potentially lead to higher rates of productivity in locations where whales congregate to feed and give birth.

There is an interdependency between the engineers of the sea, whales, and the ecosystem, and steps need to be taken to support sustainable environments throughout the next century.

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