The Whale Pump

It is well known that microbes, zooplankton, and fish are important sources of recycled nitrogen in coastal waters, yet marine mammals have largely been ignored or dismissed in this cycle. Using field measurements and population data, we find that marine mammals can enhance primary productivity in their feeding areas by concentrating nitrogen near the surface through the release of flocculent fecal plumes. Whales and seals may be responsible for replenishing 2.3×104 metric tons of N per year in the Gulf of Maine's euphotic zone, more than the input of all rivers combined. This upward “whale pump” played a much larger role before commercial harvest, when marine mammal recycling of nitrogen was likely more than three times atmospheric N input. Even with reduced populations, marine mammals provide an important ecosystem service by sustaining productivity in regions where they occur in high densities.

Recently, we have show that baleen whales, which prey on animals (fish and crustaceans), harbor unique gut microbiomes with surprising parallels in functional capacity and higher level taxonomy to those of terrestrial herbivores. These similarities likely reflect a shared role for fermentative metabolisms despite a shift in primary carbon sources from plant-derived to animal-derived polysaccharides, such as chitin. In contrast, protein catabolism and essential amino acid synthesis pathways in baleen whale microbiomes more closely resemble those of terrestrial carnivores. Our results demonstrate that functional attributes of the microbiome can vary independently even given an animal-derived diet, illustrating how diet and evolutionary history combine to shape microbial diversity in the mammalian gut.