Krill-fish

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A great video by Sustainable Human on how the relationship between great whales and the trophic cascade- whale activity supports sea life and naturally sequesters carbon dioxide, limiting climate change.

An article by Sandy Dechert additionally discusses how increasing whale populations can combat the effects of climate change:

The great whales have a meal plan that actually sustains their diet. They feed in deep, dark waters. When great whales surface, they expel in their iron- and nitrogen-rich feces nutrients that are scarce at the uppermost water levels. In the photic zone at the surface, the increased light causes photosynthesis, and the whale poop fertilizes the plant plankton that live up there. When the huge mammals leap and dive, their activity kicks the plankton around in the photic zone, giving it more time to reproduce. Plant plankton feeds animal plankton, which sustains larger creatures like fish and krill—the original diet of the whales!

Key to the climate effects: this plant plankton also absorb carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere in large quantities. When the plankton eventually sink, they take the carbon dioxide down too, naturally sequestering it just as land vegetation does.

The science tells us that the huge whale population before the 1800′s may have been removed tens of millions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year. As the video states, “The more whales there are, the more plankton there is. The more plankton there is, the more carbon is drawn out of the air.”

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The Southern Giant Petrel

I’m drawing some of these guys up at the Burke Museum in Seattle this week.  They’re the another scavenger bird that lives around the Antarctic, and as you can see, they’re HUGE.  Their wingspan can reach up to 81 inches.  They eat carrion, but also hunt for krill and fish, which enables them to do what this family of birds does best: vomit sticky, viscous, rancid fish oil on their enemies.  This habit made sailors give them the name “Stinkpots,” or “Stinkers,” as they’re still sometimes called.

I’m drawing them mostly because they fill a similar niche to my bird, the little Snowy Sheathbill, although these petrels have giant bills that let them rip open elephant seal carcasses, as you can see from the top photo.  The bottom photo, from the NSF’s site, shows biologist Heidi Geisz measuring the bill length of a Giant Petrel chick. Scientists have been monitoring the Giant Petrel population near Palmer Station since the 1970s.

I probably won’t be seeing these birds in the wild.  I won’t have the permits to get on to their island, which is carefully controlled through the Antarctic Conservation Act (Public Law 95-541).   To follow this Act, you must obtain a permit to go into specially protected areas as well as to be in close proximity to the wildlife; the sheathbills we’re going to be looking at don’t require any special permits, because they will show up wherever there’s tasty looking trash to eat.

For more information on the Antarctic Conservation Act visit: http://www.nsf.gov/od/opp/antarct/aca/aca.jsp

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