Have You Heard About Whale Earwax?

Dani Crain
Baylor University
Central Texas Teen Science Café


The amazing thing about science is that you can always find something intriguing from the unexpected. Sometimes those intriguing results come from something gross. Many students dissect owl pellets during their high school career or may have identified wild animals based on their droppings. “Ew!” was exactly the reaction we expected when we introduced the topic of whale earwax for our October Café in Central Texas.

Dani Crain is a doctoral candidate in the Baylor University biology department. She spends much of her time at work in a lab studying whale earwax. Central Texas Teen Science Café teen and adult leaders were immediately intrigued and thought it would be a popular topic for our teens.

Our Café began with themed food including Whale Crackers and an icebreaker about marine mammals. We then dove in to whale facts and how our speaker studies earwax. Crain displayed on the screen a large picture of tree rings. She informed us that much like tree rings, whale earwax grows in layers year by year. In her lab, she separates each layer individually and from those layers she can measure hormones including pregnancy and stress hormones.

Crain showed the teens graphs that illustrate the levels of hormones throughout a female whale’s lifetime. From the graph, Crain depicted points in the whale’s life that she had a baby, or times when she was stressed. Crain’s research helps predict maximum whale population growth rates based on how many offspring female whales have. Crain also informed us that from some whale earwax samples it was concluded that whales were very stressed during times of World War II.

Hands on Activity

For our activity, we allowed our teens to get creative while interpreting data about whale hormones. We gave groups of teens poster size line graphs and asked them to create a story about the whale’s life. Teens got creative and told stories about relationships, lost children, and war. Even though their stories may not have been realistic, they understood why the hormones in the earwax is studied and were extremely engaged with our scientist.

Our Café concluded with tons of questions about whale lifespan, whale reproduction, and how whale earwax is collected. Our teens were attentive and excited to learn more about this unexpected gross science. One unforgettable element of this Café was the opportunity to smell a small sample of earwax. Trust us, it’s gross.