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Can Earwax Be Used to Tell a Whale's Age?

Like humans, whales produce a steady flow of earwax. Unlike humans, whales tend to develop plugs of wax that are not easily dislodged. In fact, the wax can accumulate over the life of the whale. Along with examining the teeth, measuring the amount of wax accumulated in the ears of whales makes it possible to accurately determine their ages.

More facts about measuring a whale’s age:

  • With some whales, measuring ear wax is the only definitive way to determine age. This is true for varieties that do not have teeth, such as baleen whales. Scientists sometimes use both the condition of the teeth and the amount of wax buildup to determine the whale’s age.

  • Using the wax plugs to determine age is a lot like counting the rings on a tree. The wax accumulates in layers, so it is easy to determine the number of layers that are present and relate that data to a specific number of years.

  • It is not possible to collect earwax plugs from live whales. A combination of blubber and muscle protect the wax from easy collection. In addition, collecting wax from live marine animals is prohibited in a number of nations, including the United States.

Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including WiseGeek, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments
By anon295381 — On Oct 06, 2012

Their age does matter to better understand the species' biology. This is important for conservation, in learning about their life history patterns and how they may be affected by humans.

By anon254598 — On Mar 13, 2012

Well leave the whales alone. Their age doesn't matter unless they have been slaughtered, which seems to be a past time of the human species.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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