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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 1st July 2016 > WAX ELOQUENT


The stuff that builds up in a whale’s ear can teach us much about the changing Arctic


A PHYSIOLOGIST with wide-ranging interests, Stephen Trumble studies everything from rats to zebrafish, but these days whale earwax is taking over his Baylor University lab. There are already 30 pieces of it lined up, each requiring about a year’s worth of analysis—and he hopes to obtain five times as many. He’s doing this because hidden in all that wax is information that could tell us how life has been changing for whales and the Arctic in the past 100 years or more.

For decades, cetologists, the marine scientists who study whales and dolphins, have had to gather data from dozens of different sources to reconstruct the life story of a specific sea mammal. For example, studying the scars in the ovaries could reveal the number of pregnancies a female whale had experienced; the bristly, filter-like baleen used to feed could give scientists information on what sorts of contaminants might have entered the whale’s food source in the most recent decade or two. Whale earwax has long had some use in this accounting.

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PUTIN'S SECRET WEAPON Every day, the red line ticks up and down. Some weeks it trends higher, others lower. It measures the most important vital sign of Russia’s body politic: the popularity of Vladimir Putin. In the Kremlin they call it the reiting, the Russian pronunciation of rating and the reiting rules supreme over all the nation’s political and economic decisions. When it stands as it did in late May at a comfortable eighty two percent, Russia’s elite breathes easy. When it dips as low at sixty two percent, as it did in 2011 when Putin announced his return for a third presidential term every resource is scrambled to reverse the trend at any cost. In recent times, that has meant anything from staging a lavish Olympic Games to taking the country to war in Ukraine and Syria.