Thank God for Sperm Whales and Other Predators

As this year’s Thanksgiving celebration approaches here in the U.S., we are encouraged to consider all the things we have to be thankful for. Of course, the usual things tend to be family, jobs, food on the table, good friends, homes, cars, etc. Some of us go a little further, mentioning things like books, games, toys, our team in the playoffs, etc. Those of us of a religious persuasion will surely be thankful for Jesus’ sacrifice, God’s provision, His daily mercies and protection, sovereign grace, etc. (OK, some of that last bit was specifically Christian, but you get the gist.)

But, taking a cue from Dr. Hugh Ross of RTB, I would like to suggest that we include something a little more unusual. Think outside the box, as it were. Take sperm whale poop, for example….

“A team of biologists and oceanographers[1], led by Flinders University biologist Trish Lavery, discovered that sperm whales, in spite of respiring huge quantities of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, are actually responsible for removing far greater quantities of this greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. The team found that credit for the sperm whales’ contribution to relieving the planet from its current global warming crisis goes to what it eats and what it defecates….

Sperm whale

Sperm whale

Giant squid and colossal squid make up the bulk of the sperm whale diet. The squid diet is rich in iron. When feeding, a sperm whale undertakes dives lasting between 30 and 90 minutes, interspersed by eight minute rest periods. Lavery’s research team observed that, while resting on the water’s surface, sperm whales frequently will defecate. Between 85 to 90 percent of the iron ingested by sperm whales is expelled in their feces in the form of ferrous salts. Since most of these feces are liquid, nearly all of the iron is efficiently delivered to the photic zone of the ocean waters.

The photic zone comprises the upper ocean layer where photosynthetic plankton, or phytoplankton, thrive. Phytoplankton forms the base of the food chain for all oceanic life. The more phytoplankton, the greater the total biomass the oceans can support. Phytoplankton also is responsible for most of the oxygen pumped into the atmosphere and, of all life, accounts for most of the carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere. However, the availability of soluble iron limits the growth of phytoplankton, particularly in the southern oceans.

Lavery’s team discovered that sperm whales play a crucial role in delivering the necessary iron to the phytoplankton. The researchers calculated that the 12,000 sperm whales populating the Southern Ocean (the ocean surrounding Antarctica) deliver 55 tons (50 tonnes) of iron per year to the phytoplankton dwelling there. In turn, these phytoplankton exploit that iron to remove 440,000 tons (400,000 tonnes) of carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Subsequent to death, the phytoplankton deposit that carbon by sinking to the deep ocean…. In other words, sperm whales are doing their bit to resolve global warming.

Paradoxically enough, sperm whales stimulate the growth of giant and colossal squid populations. The 440,000 extra tons (400,000 tonnes) of carbon delivered to the deep Southern Ocean as a result of the sperm whales’ iron fertilization ultimately provide the squids with additional food. So, even though sperm whales prey upon these squids, the greater the population of sperm whales the greater the populations of giant and colossal squids and all the fish species they feed upon the deep oceans can support. (The same kind of positive feedback relationship occurs between baleen whales, krill, and all the sea life krill support.)”

It’s the ciiiiiirclllle of liiiiiiife….

Ross goes on to reveal that the paper’s publication helped to narrowly avert a tragedy. Thinking that whales actually contributed to the “greenhouse effect”, some leaders began considering a reduction in, or even elimination of, whale populations. Now that evidence points to the contrary, that option has apparently been taken off the table. In fact, the paper’s authors point out that it would be a worthwhile goal for nations to instead work toward returning the world’s whale populations to their pre-Industrial Revolution (pre-1750 AD) numbers. (IMHO, this is an example of why we should avoid taking drastic measures re this supposed “crisis”, at least not until a lot more reliable data is available and thoroughly analyzed.)

“The paper also inadvertently implies an answer as to why God created a sequence of whale species such that the habitat of all whales gradually increased from just fresh water locales to partly salty river estuaries to the seas adjoining continental landmasses to all the oceans of the world. With the Sun becoming progressively brighter as it continues to convert hydrogen into helium through nuclear fusion in its core (the increasing core density causes the Sun’s nuclear furnace to burn hotter), God stepped in to compensate for the increasing solar luminosity, in part, by progressively creating new species of whales so as to gradually increase the range and population of whales. As these changes took place, the fertilization of Earth’s photic zones increased, resulting in a progressively greater removal of greenhouse gases from the planet’s atmosphere. Thus, even as the Sun brightens, the progressive removal of greenhouse gases from Earth’s atmosphere keeps the surface temperature ideal for life.

In dramatic fashion Lavery’s team has shown us that sperm whales should not be taken for granted. They are a unique species, designed like no other to serve the planet’s life, and human beings in particular. Sperm whales also provide yet one more example of how, when we humans face a crisis or dilemma where it appears we must choose between ethics and economics, we can rest assured that God already designed Earth and its life so that both optimally ethical and optimally economic solutions exist.”

Sounds like quite the purposeful and intelligently-designed biosystem, if ya ask me. But, the benefits of carnivory aren’t limited to sperm whales, of course. Dr. Ross summarizes the findings of another study[2] and their implications:

Grizzly bear

Grizzly bear

“Three ecologists from Yale and Northeastern Universities, led by Oswald Schmitz, reviewed the current scientific literature that shows increasingly that predators deposit concentrated, nutrient-rich feces. These feces stimulate plant growth (especially angiosperms), which are the most food-productive plants on Earth. Consequently, predators benefit the entire food chain.

Schmitz’s team went on to demonstrate that most predator species, in their search for prey, are forced to forage over relatively large territories. Thanks to such behavior, predators translocate their nutrient deposits widely within and across ecosystem boundaries.

Predator hunting forces herbivores to translocate as well. Thus, herbivore feces, though not as nutrient rich as the predators, also gets deposited in ecosystems that otherwise would never benefit from such enrichment. For example, mountain goats are chased into near vertical landscapes by the threat of grizzlies. The fecal and urinary deposits of those goats support an entire ecosystem of plants and animals in an environment that would normally be deemed too harsh. To quote Schmitz’s team, ‘Depending on their behavioral ecology, predators can create heterogeneous or homogeneous nutrient distributions across natural landscapes.’

The team points out that predators deserve human protection and care, not so much because they are cute or because they make endearing and loyal pets, but because they do so much to support all the rest of Earth’s life. I would add one more observation: carnivores appear to be optimally designed to maximally benefit the health and population levels of the herbivores they prey upon by selectively weeding out the sick and the dying. In fact, carnivores appear to be optimally designed to benefit all life-forms, including human beings. Such ubiquitous optimal designs displayed across all species of predators are clear evidence of the handiwork of [a] supernatural, super-intelligent, super-beneficent Creator. As the psalmist declares, ‘How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.’ [Psalm 104:24]”

So, as we contemplate our many, God-given blessings this Thanksgiving season, perhaps we should expand on the usual range of things we are thankful for to include carnivores… and feces. (Just try to find a “delicate” way to mention it so as not to gross people out, especially before dinner.)

1. Trish J. Lavery et al., “Iron Defecation by Sperm Whales Stimulates Carbon Export in the Southern Ocean,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Biological Sciences, published electronically June 16, 2010, doi:10.1096/rspb.2010.0863.

2. Oswald J. Schmitz, Dror Hawlena, and Geoffrey C. Trussell, “Predator Control of Ecosystem Nutrient Dynamics,” Ecology Letters 13 (October 2010): 1199–209.

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