[MARMAM] new article on interaction of whale baleen with oil

Alex Werth awerth at hsc.edu
Wed May 22 13:04:06 PDT 2019

On behalf of my colleagues (Shemar Blakeney and Adrian Cothren) I am pleased to announce the publication of our new open-access article on the interaction of whale baleen with oil, which can be accessed here: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.182194

Werth, A.J., S.M. Blakeney, A.I. Cothren. Oil adsorption does not structurally or functionally alter whale baleen. Royal Society Open Science 6(5):e182194, doi: 10.1098/rsos.182194

Abstract: Mysticete whales filter small prey from seawater using baleen, a unique keratinous oral tissue that grows from the palate, from which it hangs in hundreds of serial plates. Laboratory experiments testing effects of oils on material strength and flexibility, particle capture, and tissue architecture of baleen from four mysticete species (bowhead, Balaena mysticetus; North Atlantic right, Eubalaena glacialis; fin, Balaenoptera physalus; humpback, Megaptera novaeangliae) indicate that baleen is hydrophilic and oleophobic, shedding rather than adsorbing oil. Oils of different weights and viscosities were tested, including six petroleum-based oils and two fish or plankton oils of common whale prey. No notable differences were found by oil type or whale species. Baleen did not adsorb oil; oil was readily rinsed from baleen by flowing water, especially from moving fringes. Microscopic examination shows minimal wrinkling or peeling of baleen's cortical keratin layers, likely due to oil repelling infiltrated water. Combined results cast doubt on fears of baleen fouling by oil; filter porosity is not appreciably affected, but oil ingestion risks remain. Particle capture studies suggest potentially greater danger to mysticetes from plastic pollution than oil.

1.    Baleen is hydrophilic and oleophobic, shedding rather than adsorbing oil.
2.    Oil was easily rinsed by flowing seawater, minimizing the danger of baleen fouling.
3.    Oil did not significantly affect baleen's flexibility, strength, or capture of particles.
4.    Histological investigation revealed slight wrinkling and peeling of baleen's surface keratin layers caused by prolonged oil exposure.
5.    Ingestion of microplastics may pose a greater risk to whales than ingestion of oil, based on our findings of poor adsorption of oil to baleen, whereas we found baleen is highly effective in trapping and accumulating small plastic particles. Plastic is more likely to clog the baleen filter and thus perhaps more likely to be ingested by whales than oil.
Best regards,
Alexander J. Werth, Ph.D.
Trinkle Professor of Biology
Hampden-Sydney College
Box 162, Hampden-Sydney, VA 23943
434-223-6326, fax 434-223-6374

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