Revealing the ocean’s secrets – with earwax

Because we see so much of it, here at The Hearing Clinic we’re a lot less squeamish about earwax than many people. In fact, we think earwax is pretty amazing. Here’s why.

Earwax is predominantly made up of dead skin cells and the rest is fatty acids, alcohols and cholesterol. As earwax moves out of the ear canal it travels at around the same speed as your fingernails grow, taking with it any particles that may have gathered in the canal and damaged the eardrum. Earwax is even known to kill off some types of bacteria.

The ‘go to’ substance

In medieval times, earwax was used to prepare pigments used by scribes to illustrate illuminated manuscripts. It was also applied to insect and snake bites, and the first lip balm may have been earwax-based.

Earwax can be wet or dry, and your genes will largely dictate which type you have. As a result, earwax and its make-up in different populations is enabling anthropologists to track how humans have migrated across the world’s continents.

We’re not the only ones with earwax

Earwax is also helping scientists to unlock the secrets of the oceans and the creatures that live in it. That’s because many animals, including whales, develop build-ups of earwax like we do. In the same way as humans, different types of whales have different types of earwax, and the earwax plugs these huge creatures develop can be up to 10 inches long.

As whales go through their cycles of eating, migrating and nurturing young, the wax in their ears changes from light to dark which can be seen as bands in their earwax plug. Like with tree rings, these can be counted to estimate an animal’s age and chemically analysed to reveal its biography. As a result, whale earwax is unlocking a huge amount of information about these gentle giants and the history of the oceans.

Showing the human impact on whales

Scientists have analysed plugs kept by museums, some of which date back to animals born in the 1870s. When compared to what we know about whaling and world events, there are surprising matches. When whaling increased, levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, rose in the whales’ bodies, peaking during the height of whaling in the 1960s. After moratoriums were adopted in the 1970s, cortisol levels fell. There is also a high level of cortisol in the earwax of whales alive during the Second World War, most likely reflecting the stress caused by naval combat between the warring nations.

Since the 1970s, whaling has dwindled to negligible levels in the northern hemisphere, but cortisol levels have risen again, possibly linked to a rise in ocean temperatures.

If you’re concerned about earwax build up, The Hearing Clinic can help. A quick check and a short ear wax removal appointment and you’ll be back to hearing at your best. Humans only please. Call us today on 01923 372101 (Radlett) or 01462 506074 (Hitchin) or click on this link to get in touch:

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