Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Northern Right Whales Head South to Give Birth, Leave Genetic “Fingerprints” with NOAA Researchers

05.03.2008
Like many northerners who head south to warmer climates for the winter, many Northern right whales also head south in November and stay into April. Their destination is the only known calving ground for this rare and endangered population—the waters off Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. When they arrive, NOAA scientists are there to greet them, and to take DNA samples.

Although they are large animals, finding them in the ocean is not easy. “Like people, they don’t all congregate in one spot,” says NOAA researcher Dr. Richard Pace of the challenge. “There may be one here, and three others 50 miles away. And you don’t know who will be there this year.” Pace, and colleagues from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GADNR) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), are primarily focused on locating right whale newborns and adults who have not yet been sampled.

To find the whales, the researchers depend heavily on aerial spotting teams. Once close enough to a whale, the researchers work from an inflatable boat to collect small samples of skin and blubber. The DNA found in the skin can be used to determine sex and create a genetic "fingerprint” for later re-identification. These samples will be added to an already extensive collection of right whale DNA, maintained at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, obtained from approximately 300 individuals.

DNA collected and banked through the project not only helps researchers identify individual whales and their parents, but also to assess genetic variation in the population, determine how many females may be reproductively active, monitor the health of individual animals, and help understand their mating system. Better understanding of the stock’s composition and condition improves prospects for the survival of this small population, currently estimated at just over 300 animals.

The right whale’s name is believed to have come from whalers who thought they were the "right" ones to hunt because they are slow and float when killed. Populations were drastically reduced by intensive hunting during the height of the whaling era during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Pace and his NOAA colleague Lisa Conger are usually found at the Woods Hole Laboratory of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, a part of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries Service). The pair has studied Northern right whales for years. For the last two years during mid-January to early March, Pace has been in Florida participating in the genetic “fingerprinting” project. Conger arrived in Florida in early January.

Sampling is tightly controlled by federal authorities, and Pace and colleagues are permitted to biopsy no more than 30 whales this calving season. Samples are collected using a lightweight dart which takes a sample of skin and blubber about the diameter of a pencil eraser. The dart bounces off the whale after impact and floats until picked up by researchers.

“Whales cover a lot more territory than people think, and we have no idea how many will be in a general location at a given time,” Pace says of the challenge. “We rarely know where more than half the population is at any given time.” While the population off Florida is thought to be mostly pregnant females, mothers with calves and juveniles, a few adult males may be in the group, and researchers have to look hard to find any of them. They may be 30 miles off shore, or 30 yards off the beach.”

Although obtaining the genetic samples is the primary goal of Pace’s group, the aerial observers are funded by other programs within NOAA primarily to alert nearby ships that right whales are in the area, reducing the risk of collisions, a leading source of serious injury and deaths among these animals. The aerial surveys also help confirm the identities of known whales and capture images of animals not yet in the master photo identification catalog maintained by the New England Aquarium in Boston.

Adult Northern right whales can be easily identified by callosities, large raised patches of rough skin that resemble barnacles, on their heads. “It is like recognizing a human face,” Pace says of the patterns. “Once we see an individual we can tell who it is.” Calves, however, are difficult to identify until a whale is seven or eight months old, when the pattern of the callosities stabilizes. The master catalog of photographs contains images contributed by more than 100 researchers and organizations and is used to help identify adult animals.

“There is a tremendous amount of collaboration involved between federal, state and private groups,” Pace says of the project. In addition to NEFSC colleagues in Woods Hole and researchers from NOAA Fisheries Service’s Southeast Regional Office in St. Petersburg, Pace and Conger work with staff from GADNR, FWC, the Wildlife Trust and the New England Aquarium. Related efforts, funded by NOAA, the U.S. Navy, Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard, support the Florida Early Warning System (EWS) aerial surveys.

Adult Northern right whales range from 45 to 55 feet in length and can weigh up to 70 tons. Females, which are larger than males, give birth to their first calf around the age of 9 or 10 and calve at intervals between three and six years. Calves can be 13 to 15 feet long at birth.

Seventeen mother-calf pairs have been identified to date, and researchers are watching eight females who may give birth this season. Another 80 or so non-mothers have been observed one or more times. More sightings are expected by March, when the animals head north to their summer feeding and nursery grounds off Cape Cod and in Canada’s Bay of Fundy.

Conger recently returned to Woods Hole to prepare for sighting cruises for animals off the New England coast. An NEFSC team will be evaluating areas in Great South Channel east of Cape Cod and in Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bays that have been designated as critical habitats for Northern Atlantic right whales. Researchers will also be examining other areas in the Gulf of Maine that may warrant a similar designation.

The NOAA Fisheries Service genetic sampling team from Woods Hole will continue their efforts in the spring when right whales return to local waters.

NOAA Fisheries Service is dedicated to protecting and preserving our nation’s living marine resources and their habitat through scientific research, management and enforcement. NOAA Fisheries Service provides effective stewardship of these resources for the benefit of the nation, supporting coastal communities that depend upon them, and helping to provide safe and healthy seafood to consumers and recreational opportunities for the American public.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and information service delivery for transportation, and by providing environmental stewardship of our nation's coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), NOAA is working with its federal partners, more than 70 countries and the European Commission to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes, predicts and protects.

Shelley Dawicki | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.noaa.gov

More articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation:

nachricht Scientists produce a new roadmap for guiding development & conservation in the Amazon
09.12.2016 | Wildlife Conservation Society

nachricht Successful calculation of human and natural influence on cloud formation
04.11.2016 | Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main

All articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Electron highway inside crystal

Physicists of the University of Würzburg have made an astonishing discovery in a specific type of topological insulators. The effect is due to the structure of the materials used. The researchers have now published their work in the journal Science.

Topological insulators are currently the hot topic in physics according to the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Only a few weeks ago, their importance was...

Im Focus: Significantly more productivity in USP lasers

In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.

Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...

Im Focus: Shape matters when light meets atom

Mapping the interaction of a single atom with a single photon may inform design of quantum devices

Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...

Im Focus: Novel silicon etching technique crafts 3-D gradient refractive index micro-optics

A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.

Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...

Im Focus: Quantum Particles Form Droplets

In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.

“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

ICTM Conference 2017: Production technology for turbomachine manufacturing of the future

16.11.2016 | Event News

Innovation Day Laser Technology – Laser Additive Manufacturing

01.11.2016 | Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

Researchers identify potentially druggable mutant p53 proteins that promote cancer growth

09.12.2016 | Life Sciences

Scientists produce a new roadmap for guiding development & conservation in the Amazon

09.12.2016 | Ecology, The Environment and Conservation

Satellites, airport visibility readings shed light on troops' exposure to air pollution

09.12.2016 | Health and Medicine

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>