A blue whale’s buildup of earwax archives its history of stress levels and exposure to chemical pollutants, which could allow researchers to piece together new details about the animal’s life, a study shows. The blue whale is the largest animal on Earth, and an endangered species. Like many other baleen whales, these massive creatures tend to accumulate layers of wax in their ear canals, which over time results in long earplugs. Scientists in the past have used this waxy matrix as an aging tool, similar to counting tree rings, study researcher Sascha Usenko, an assistant professor of environmental science at Baylor University, explained in a statement. The earplug, however, had never been used to obtain a chemical profile.

The earwax also showed the whale’s level of the stress hormone cortisol generally increased over time, which could be explained by a number of possibly stressful experiences, including weaning, migration, changes in social status and environmental noise.

What’s more, they say this approach can be used to analyze earwax plugs that are sitting in museums, some of which might date back to the 1950s. With further study samples, researchers might be able to put together a more extensive picture of how increasing pollution, sonar use and the introduction of specific pesticides have affected whales. This important discovery will help scientists achieve a much higher level of information on a very important topic.

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