Whales: Their Function in the Ecosystem and the Threats They Are Under

Editor Ani Talwar looks at the significance of whales and their significance in managing the future of ecosystems as well as the threats facing this beautiful species.

Each animal holds a unique role on Earth. From recycling waste, to providing food for predators or regulating population growth of prey. The interactions between each animal plays a part in regulating and maintaining the delicate homeostasis on our planet that life relies on. However, as a species enriched in tradition, culture and history, another animal is now providing a different benefit; a reflection in culture and society that we are so used to: whales.

There are 90 odd species of ‘cetaceans’ or whales as we know them as. Other than the obvious difference of being…not humans, whales aren’t all too different from us at times. They care for their young, just as we do; they teach them, just as we do; and feed them with their own milk and communicate using whale songs. Whales even have their own languages, with separate populations using different signals, akin to the different languages we speak as humans. It seems now the similarities aren’t simply in the way whales survive, but also in their society, because whales, like us, seem to have entire cultures.

Image credit: Andrew Bain

Did you know that sperm whales have the largest brains on the planet? Or that they communicate using sonar systems? These are intricate songs of clicks and rhythms that can represent a language of which there are hundreds. The idea that whales have a culture or even simply emotions is widely debated. For a long time it was believed that humans were the only animals with emotion but whale songs are thought of as a fashion of communication, and of emotions no less.

Whales are especially valuable to us, not only in the cultural similarities they can teach us, but in their vital role in the ecosystem. Even after death, whales continue to help the ecosystems and life in the oceans. ‘Whale fall’ is the term given to a whale once it dies and sinks to the ocean floor. The immense size of the animals means that once its body sinks, it can serve to help around 400 species of marine life with sufficient nutrients and shelter. It was even said ‘without whales, entire marine communities would likely be affected as balance in the ecosystem fluctuates in the absence of these great mammals,’ (Jessica Perelman, NatGeo) Whales not only support life like this, but they regulate it too. A blue whale can consume 40 million krill in one day, ensuring the overpopulation of this species doesn’t occur. 

Sperm whale faeces also provide atmospheric benefit, promoting growth of phytoplankton that act as a carbon sink. In this way, whales actually help mix the water and spread nutrients like iron and nitrogen through the water. Furthermore, the amount of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere annually due to sperm whales totals at about 400,000 tonnes.

Image credit: Todd Cravens

Whales have a clear importance in the ecosystem, as we can see, but overfishing, dam construction, whaling and pollution are threatening the life of this important animal. Whales have been hunted for oil and meat they produce which is used in soap, perfume, candles, cosmetics, and even margarine! Thankfully, alternate sources to whale oil are taking precedence, allowing for a reduction in whale hunting, but small-scale killing for meat is still an issue in some places. Whales are captured under the pretence of educational research and then sold for meat as a guise of reducing waste once research is done.

Despite this, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling in 1946 gave the animals hope. It was signed by countries to enforce a reduction in whale killings to allow the prevention of death of an endangered species. This was supported by the International Whaling Commission in 1986 which aimed to stop whale death for commercial purposes.

Today, you can be part of appreciating the whales through whale watching, an activity that grew in popularity in the 1950’s. In fact, scientists at National Geographic have spent so much time listening to whales and their songs that they’ve even turned the music of the animal into playable/listenable music which you can listen to here.

So, whales have a larger impact on our life than we may have anticipated. From atmospheric regulation to mixing of elements, regulating population size and supporting life! Though endangered, hopefully our realisations into how important whales are to our life will keep them safe for years to come.

About the Author: Ani Talwar is the Deputy Wildlife and Environment Editor at WILD Magazine. Ani can be found at @Mischief.weavers, she wrote the book ‘ATRO- CITY THE FLOOD’ and cares passionately about sustainability.

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