Aerial Survey Blog Starting Soon!

We are getting ready to begin our aerial survey field season in the southeastern United States. On December 1st, we will be 1000 feet in the air scanning the endless waters off Georgia and Florida's coastline for right whales, especially mothers with their newborn calves! There have already been reports of right whales off the coast of South Carolina by the Wildlife Trust aerial survey team! To follow the whales down to the warmer waters off the east coast U.S. click on the link to our Aerial Survey Blog and don't forget to bookmark! It's sure to be an exciting season!

Photo Caption: A mother and her calf interacting with a pod of dolphins in the southeast U.S. Photo taken by Gabriel Munoz.

- Jonathan


#38: Darting A Right Whale With A Crossbow!?!

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of an exciting and valuable collaboration between right whale researchers at the New England Aquarium and geneticists at Trent University (Peterborough, Ontario).

Although much of what has been learned about the life history of right whales is through photo identification studies, comprehensive genetic analyses and integration of the two research techniques have yielded information on right whale biology and conservation that serves as a model for studying small but persistent populations. All that is needed is a small piece of skin, about the size of a pencil eraser, collected from a right whale at sea, to get access to DNA and a means to examine maternity, paternity, identify individuals and genealogical relationships, genetic diversity, effective population size, and reproductive success.

The small bits of skin are collected by biopsy sampling - the collection of living tissue from a live specimen; in our case it is skin and sometime a bit of blubber as well. There is a strict protocol to follow to biopsy dart a right whale. Since we conduct research in both the USA and Canada, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Ocean must issue a specialized permit to a researcher who has shown to have the qualifications and training necessary to safely sample a right whale.

Researchers use a crossbow equipped with a modified arrow designed to bounce off the whale on impact, taking with it a one inch sample of skin and blubber. The tip of the arrow has a hollow cylinder with three backward facing prongs inside it, backed by foam core to prevent deep penetration. The edge of the tip pierces the skin of the whale while the prongs grip the skin and blubber removing it as the foam backing rebounds off the whale. The process is minimally invasive and when done correctly elicits little or no reaction from the whale.

In addition to the DNA studies, the skin is also analyzed by epidemiologists to investigate disease and by a toxicologist trying to understand the effect the urban environment has on the population.

There is a collaborative effort of researchers from the United States and Canada to obtain a biopsy sample of every right whale in the population. Researchers from National Marine Fisheries Services and Georgia Department of Natural Resources work together to collect biopsy samples from calves born in the Southeast United States (Revisit our Aerial Survey Blog from 2008 for more on this aspect of right whale research.).

Because the unique callosities patterns do not develop on calves for several months, the only way to distinguish one from another early on is by the association with the mother. Some of the calves in the southeast will not be seen anywhere in the northeast and a genetic identification from the calving ground will be the only link we have to its lineage. During the first 6 months of a calf's life it does not stray far from the mother. Then, in summer and fall, the pair slowly begins to spend more time apart until the calf is fully weaned at the end of its first year. By collecting biopsy samples during the first 12 months researchers can track the mother and calf lineage.
New England Aquarium researchers biopsy dart whales in the Bay of Fundy during our summer field season. We biopsy dart mothers and calves missed in the Southeast United States, whales from previous years that have never been sampled and any visibly injured or special interest right whales. The samples are sent to the corresponding laboratories in the USA or Canada where they are analyzed to learn more about this critically endangered species to help researchers enhance conservation measures.

Photo Captions:
1) Yan & Cyndi pointing to a right whale that needs to be biopsy sampled. Photo Credit - Jonathan
2) Biopsy Dart before it strikes the flank of the whale. Photo Credit - Erin Burke
3) Yan pulling the biospy sample out of the arrow head. Photo Credit - Jonathan
4) A skin (black) a blubber (white) sample obtained from the whale. Photo Credit - Jonathan


#37: Right Whale Consortium

The right whale research team just returned from the annual right whale consortium meeting at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in New Bedford Massachusetts on November 5-6th. The two day meeting was a success with over 200 participants, 42 speakers and 9 poster presentations. Many thanks go to Heather Pettis from the New England Aquarium for organizing such a successful event.

The consortium included researchers from all over the world discussing their research on North Atlantic right whales and even some Southern right whales. The topics discussed included Management, Genetics, Shipping, Population Biology, Acoustics, Fishing, Physiology, and Data Management.

There were many interesting presentations at the consortium. Mason Weinrich, Whale Center New England, presented evidence for a critical habitat on Jeffrey's Ledge. Bradley White, Trent University, discussed Brenna McLeod's research on tracking mitochondrial control region heteroplasmy through multiple generations in North Atlantic right whales. And a familiar name to readers, Cynthia Browning presented her research on documented calf mortality and an estimation of potential calf loss in North Atlantic right whales. You can read these abstracts and all others presented at the consortium meeting on the right whale consortium website.