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Whales as ecosystem engineers
Date:7/3/2014

"Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part," wrote Herman Melville in Moby Dick. Today, we no longer dread whales, but their subtlety remains. "For a long time, whales have been considered too rare to make much of a difference in the oceans," notes University of Vermont conservation biologist Joe Roman. That was a mistake.

In a new paper, Roman and a team of biologists have tallied several decades of research on whales from around the world; it shows that whales, in fact, make a huge differencethey have a powerful and positive influence on the function of oceans, global carbon storage, and the health of commercial fisheries. "The decline in great whale numbers, estimated to be at least 66% and perhaps as high as 90%, has likely altered the structure and function of the oceans," Roman and his colleagues write in the July 3, 2014, online edition of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, " but recovery is possible and in many cases is already underway."

"The continued recovery of great whales may help to buffer marine ecosystems from destabilizing stresses," the team of scientists writes. This recovered role may be especially important as climate change threatens ocean ecosystems with rising temperatures and acidification. "As long-lived species, they enhance the predictability and stability of marine ecosystems," Roman said.

Baleen and sperm whales, known collectively as the "great whales," include the largest animals to have ever lived on Earth. With huge metabolic demandsand large populations before humans started hunting themgreat whales are the ocean's ecosystem engineers: they eat many fish and invertebrates, are themselves prey to other predators like killer whales, and distribute nutrients through the water. Even their carcasses, dropping to the seafloor, provide habitat for many species that only exist on these "whale falls." Commercia
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Contact: Joshua Brown
joshua.e.brown@uvm.edu
802-656-3039
University of Vermont
Source:Eurekalert  

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