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Outdoors just for kids: A whale of a story from ear wax

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Outdoors just for kids 11-7-2013

When you were little, did your mother used to clean your ears out with a washcloth?

My mom told me when I was little that there was so much dirt in my ears that I could grow potatoes in there. Ha! Maybe I could grow zucchini, but not potatoes. Zucchini will grow anywhere.

The stuff that builds up in your ears is called ear wax, or cerumen if you want to get all doctor like. The wax is made by your ear to protect the insides of the important organ by catching dust and dirt.

What, you may wonder, does ear wax have to do with the outdoors? Well, I’m glad you asked.

It turns out that scientists are looking at the wax that builds up in a whale’s ears to learn more about their age, as well as the pollutants they are exposed to as they live in the ocean.

The wax even shows when the whales release different kinds of hormones, like testosterone, a development hormone, or cortisol, which indicates stress.

Unlike us, a whale never gets its ears cleaned, so the wax builds up in layers. Scientists can count the layers like a tree’s rings to estimate age.

They can also analyze the different layers to see what pollutants the whale has been exposed to. Some of the chemicals they’ve found include pesticides, fire retardants and mercury.

The researchers are hoping the analysis of whales’ wax earplugs will provide them with information on how humans are affecting the large mammals’ watery environment. Unfortunately, the earplugs can only be removed after the whales die.

— Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor

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