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 International network connects experimental research in European waters
21.03.2017 | Leibniz-Institut für Gewässerökologie und Binnenfischerei (IGB)

nachricht World Water Day 2017: It doesn’t Always Have to Be Drinking Water – Using Wastewater as a Resource
17.03.2017 | ISOE - Institut für sozial-ökologische Forschung

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: Giant Magnetic Fields in the Universe

Astronomers from Bonn and Tautenburg in Thuringia (Germany) used the 100-m radio telescope at Effelsberg to observe several galaxy clusters. At the edges of these large accumulations of dark matter, stellar systems (galaxies), hot gas, and charged particles, they found magnetic fields that are exceptionally ordered over distances of many million light years. This makes them the most extended magnetic fields in the universe known so far.

The results will be published on March 22 in the journal „Astronomy & Astrophysics“.

Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally bound structures in the universe. With a typical extent of about 10 million light years, i.e. 100 times the...

Im Focus: Tracing down linear ubiquitination

Researchers at the Goethe University Frankfurt, together with partners from the University of Tübingen in Germany and Queen Mary University as well as Francis Crick Institute from London (UK) have developed a novel technology to decipher the secret ubiquitin code.

Ubiquitin is a small protein that can be linked to other cellular proteins, thereby controlling and modulating their functions. The attachment occurs in many...

Im Focus: Perovskite edges can be tuned for optoelectronic performance

Layered 2D material improves efficiency for solar cells and LEDs

In the eternal search for next generation high-efficiency solar cells and LEDs, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory and their partners are creating...

Im Focus: Polymer-coated silicon nanosheets as alternative to graphene: A perfect team for nanoelectronics

Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are less stable. Now researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have, for the first time ever, produced a composite material combining silicon nanosheets and a polymer that is both UV-resistant and easy to process. This brings the scientists a significant step closer to industrial applications like flexible displays and photosensors.

Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are...

Im Focus: Researchers Imitate Molecular Crowding in Cells

Enzymes behave differently in a test tube compared with the molecular scrum of a living cell. Chemists from the University of Basel have now been able to simulate these confined natural conditions in artificial vesicles for the first time. As reported in the academic journal Small, the results are offering better insight into the development of nanoreactors and artificial organelles.

Enzymes behave differently in a test tube compared with the molecular scrum of a living cell. Chemists from the University of Basel have now been able to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

International Land Use Symposium ILUS 2017: Call for Abstracts and Registration open

20.03.2017 | Event News

CONNECT 2017: International congress on connective tissue

14.03.2017 | Event News

ICTM Conference: Turbine Construction between Big Data and Additive Manufacturing

07.03.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Pulverizing electronic waste is green, clean -- and cold

22.03.2017 | Materials Sciences

Astronomers hazard a ride in a 'drifting carousel' to understand pulsating stars

22.03.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

New gel-like coating beefs up the performance of lithium-sulfur batteries

22.03.2017 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>