Why Whale Barnacles Can't Keep a Secret and More Breakthroughs

Barnacles record where they've been, a win in the war on plastic pollution, and climate-controlling corn.

By Lori Cuthbert
Published 23 Aug 2018, 10:10 BST
Photograph by Masa Ushioda, Water Frame, Biosphoto
This story appears in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Whale barnacles contain clues to migratory paths

Tagging and monitoring whales can reveal their extensive migration routes, but not how far—or whether—their ancestors roamed five million years ago. UC Berkeley researcher Larry Taylor knew that present-day barnacle shells take up differently weighted oxygen atoms from bodies of water. That creates a record of the oceans they’ve been in as passengers on whales. To see if barnacles had the same properties long ago, Taylor hunted down fossils that lived on early humpback whales, and bingo: They did. He hopes to shed light on prehistoric whales’ movements, as well as on the evolution of the oceans.

Photograph by Mark Thiessen, Ngm Staff

A Cool Corn-Country Theory

As scientists explore how industrialised agriculture is affecting U.S. weather and climate, an MIT study offers one notion. It says corn belt climes are changed by the corn itself—millions of acres of plants that take in carbon dioxide, then expel water, causing lower temperatures and more rain.

Netting a Win for the Oceans

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains at least 88,000 tons of plastic—and almost half of it is fishing nets. A company called Bureo is trying to solve the ocean’s plastic problem by recycling nets into skateboards, surfboard fins, and sunglasses. At facilities in California and Chile, Bureo processes nets into pellets, then applies pressure and heat as the pellets are injected into moulds—one win in the war on plastic pollution.

Photograph by Christa Neu, Lehigh University

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