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Proc Biol Sci. 2011 Jan 7;278(1702):9-17. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2010.1267. Epub 2010 Aug 11.

Bones as biofuel: a review of whale bone composition with implications for deep-sea biology and palaeoanthropology.

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Department of Zoology, Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD, UK.

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  • Proc Biol Sci. 2011 Mar 22;278(1707):960.


Whales are unique among vertebrates because of the enormous oil reserves held in their soft tissue and bone. These 'biofuel' stores have been used by humans from prehistoric times to more recent industrial-scale whaling. Deep-sea biologists have now discovered that the oily bones of dead whales on the seabed are also used by specialist and generalist scavenging communities, including many unique organisms recently described as new to science. In the context of both cetacean and deep-sea invertebrate biology, we review scientific knowledge on the oil content of bone from several of the great whale species: Balaenoptera musculus, Balaenoptera physalus, Balaenoptera borealis, Megaptera novaeangliae, Eschrichtius robustus, Physeter macrocephalus and the striped dolphin, Stenella coeruleoalba. We show that data collected by scientists over 50 years ago during the heyday of industrial whaling explain several interesting phenomena with regard to the decay of whale remains. Variations in the lipid content of bones from different parts of a whale correspond closely with recently observed differences in the taphonomy of deep-sea whale carcasses and observed biases in the frequency of whale bones at archaeological sites.

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