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Southern Ocean sperm whales are an unexpected ally in the fight against global warming, removing the equivalent carbon emissions from 40,000 cars each year in their faeces, a study shows.
The cetaceans have been previously seen as climate culprits because they breathe out carbon dioxide (CO2), the most common greenhouse gas.
But this is only a part of the picture, according to the paper, published in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
In a heroic calculation, Australian biologists estimated that about 12,000 sperm whales in the Southern Ocean each defecate around 50 tonnes of iron into the sea every year after digesting the fish and squid they hunt.
The iron is a terrific food for phytoplankton – marine plants that live near the ocean surface and which suck up CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis.
As a result of faecal fertilisation, the whales remove 400,000 tonnes of carbon each year, twice as much as the 200,000 tonnes of CO2 that they contribute through respiration.
By way of comparison, 200,000 tonnes of CO2 is equal to the emissions of almost 40,000 passenger cars, according to an equation on the website of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The whales’ faeces are so effective because they are emitted in liquid form and close to the surface, before the mammals dive, said the paper.
Industrialised whaling not only gravely threatened Southern Ocean sperm whales, it also damaged a major carbon “sink”, the scientific term for something that removes more greenhouse gases than it produces, it added.
Before industrial whaling, the population of this species was about 10 times bigger, which meant around two million tonnes of CO2 were removed annually, said the paper.
Moshpit says:In terms of net carbon flows it would appear that man is lower than whale..err stuff. Al Gore has announced an adopt-a-whale program whereby celebrities can gain carbon credits for adopting a whale. Rosie O’Donnell has been signed as the spokesmodel for the program and Bill Gates is funding a geo-engineering effort to seed the worlds oceans with psyllium seed husks to forestall any climate catastrophes that would result from irregular whales.