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The power of harbour porpoise poo

We know we need to save the whale to save the world. Now we are funding a pioneering project that's proving that porpoises are our underwater climate allies too.

We are uncovering more and more evidence showing how essential whales are for a healthy marine ecosystem. They are helping us to fight the climate and biodiversity crises. By circulating nutrients as they dive to feed and surface to breathe and poo, known as the ‘whale pump’, they provide essential nutrients which are key for marine ecosystems to thrive. These nutrients enable phytoplankton to grow, which absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.

But we know less about the role whales’ smaller cousins, the dolphins and porpoises, play in this ‘whale pump’.  It is theorised that although smaller in body size, their large numbers mean they could have similar essential roles in coastal ecosystems. To investigate this, we are funding research into the nutrient content of harbour porpoise poo in the Netherlands, and if this stimulates phytoplankton growth.

Meet two poo pioneers

Frank Zanderink is the director of the Rugvin Foundation based in the Netherlands, and Selina van Burken is a student at Aeres University of Applied Science undertaking an internship at Rugvin Foundation and working on the harbour porpoise poo research project.

Selina shows you what they are doing in her video, and in his guest blog, Frank dives deeper into their ground-breaking project and the climate power of harbour porpoise poo.

Over to Frank, with help from Selina …

It must have been three or four years ago when I read the book ’Whale’ by Joe Roman. And after this book I started reading many articles about whale poo, the whale pump and other oceanic benefits provided by large whales. Talking about this topic with other scientists and nature organisations I concluded together with my fellow colleagues from Rugvin that this was a totally new topic in the Netherlands, and even for most of Europe. This inspired me and my colleagues to start off with the Whale Poo Ambassadors programme - an initiative to increase public awareness of the importance of whale poo and start lobbying the Dutch government.

Scientist looking into microscope
Selina in the lab © Rugvin Foundation

Please donate to fund more projects like this.

Porpoise poo proposal

We developed the ‘whale poo game’, an educational board game to teach people in an interactive way about the ocean and the roles whales play in it. This led into the development of the interactive website: Then we started giving lectures at schools and zoos and raising media attention. We were invited onto national TV and radio and we talked to journalists. The topic even inspired our chairperson, Nicolle van Groningen, to write a children’s book called: Whallie the Poo.

We connected with WDC, Joe Roman and Heidi Pearson. And right on time student Selina van Burken appeared. From that moment everything moved swiftly. We understood from WDC there was a need to focus on the role dolphins and porpoises play in the marine environment and so we chose to focus on the harbour porpoise. We started working together on how to set up a study on the effect of porpoise poo on the growth of phytoplankton (an umbrella term for all plankton that photosynthesise).

A rare glimpse of a breaching harbour porpoise.
A rare glimpse of a breaching harbour porpoise.

Camping and counting

First, it was important to find a suitable lab. We contacted Marco Dubbeldam of the Sea Shell Foundation and got the greenlight - I was so excited, it was finally going to happen! At first, I had no idea where to start - what did we need? No one had looked at porpoise poo and its effect on phytoplankton growth before. It was a huge challenge. But fortunately, we were able to get advice from many people and very importantly, WDC funded our research.

I counted a type of phytoplankton called ‘algae’ every other day for five weeks in a row. The laboratory was not nearby, so during the counting days I camped in a tent nearby. Every Monday morning I packed my bag, took my bike on the train and three hours later I was on location and the counting week could begin. Every time I got to the lab after the weekend, it was a big surprise what the algae would look like. We started with a clear liquid in which the algae would grow and this liquid became increasingly greener or browner. I loved to see that the algae were growing well, which was what we wanted to prove. The last part of the study we will be busy processing the data (millions of cells of algae per millilitre) and writing the report, also exciting.

Frank and Selina in the lab © Rugvin Foundation
Frank and Selina in the lab © Rugvin Foundation

Proof for protection

We hope to demonstrate that the nutrients in harbour porpoise poo stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, and it’s exciting to see that our initial results are showing this, and that the higher the concentration of porpoise poo the higher the growth rate of the phytoplankton.

Our early results are showing just how important harbour porpoises are for a healthy ocean. We hope to include what we learn in our education programme, and publish the report in a scientific journal, so this information is available to everyone and can be used by organisations, such as WDC, to get recognition for the important role of this often-overlooked species, and campaign for their protection.

Please help fund more trailblazing projects.

If you are make a donation, we'll be able to support even more climate pioneers like Frank and Selina.

The views and opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of WDC.

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