Whales are the engineers of our ocean ecosystems (Wired UK)


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Thanks to marine biologists around the world we now know that
the gentle giants of our oceans have a powerful and positive impact
on our underwater ecosystems.

It has long been presumed that whales are so rare that their
effect on our oceans is negligible. Not so, according to new
research published in the journal Frontiers
in Ecology and the Environment
, which has taken into
account several decades of whale-related data and found that their
influence can be seen in the global carbon storage and the health
of commercial fisheries. In the past fishermen have often taken
taken the view that whales, which after all have massive metabolic
demands, are their competition. It turns out, however, that a
prevalence of whales actually encourages the development of more
robust fisheries.

It’s estimated that the dramatic decline in whale numbers,
primarily due to industrial whaling, has seen their numbers decline
between 66 and 90 percent, but there are signs of recovery, which
could well have a dramatically positive impact on the health of
ocean ecosystems overall. “Future changes in the structure and
function of the world’s oceans can be expected with the restoration
of great whale population,” write the researchers in the study’s
abstract.

Marine biologists are hoping that the recovery in whale numbers
may well help to offset the effect of “destabilising stresses” on
the ocean, including rising temperatures and acidification
occurring as a result of climate change.

“As humpbacks, grey whales, sperm whales and other cetaceans
recover from centuries of overhunting, we are beginning to see that
they also play an important role in the ocean,” said Joe Roman from the University of Vermont, who was one of
the paper’s authors. “Among their many ecological roles, whales
recycle nutrients and enhance primary productivity in areas where
they feed.”

In a process known as “whale pump”, the creatures feed at depth,
but release faecal plumes near the surface, which in turn provide
nutrition for plankton. Because of the vast distances whales
travel, they help to circulate and distribute nutrients only found
certain areas of the ocean more widely. Even in death, they provide
food for species on the ocean floor, many of which survive solely
on sunken whale carcasses, or “whale falls” as they’re more
poetically known.

Having been undervalued for years, it is only now that the
ecological impact of large creatures such as whale has been studied
and understood. “The focus of much marine ecological research has
been on smaller organisms, such as algae and planktonic animals,”
said Roman. “These small organisms are essential to life in the
sea, but they are not the whole story.”

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Source: wired.co.uk
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