News in the world of whales this week (or close to it):
- Researchers recently used genetic analysis to confirm two subspecies of Bryde's whales—a rare and little-studied baleen whale—in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. One subspecies is smaller and frequents coastal marine habitats, while the other is larger and lives in offshore waters. The “genetic research will help define these groups and identify populations in need of additional protection.” And maybe not a moment too soon; the International Whaling Commission grants Japan a “scientific permit” to kill Bryde’s whales in the northwest Pacific Ocean. I wonder how many unique subspecies Japan’s scientists are “finding.”
- False killer whales and bottlenose dolphins may work together to avoid predators in New Zealand. While it’s not clear if the two species are actively working together or just opportunistically benefiting from the added predator-detection resulting from more animals in the water, there’s something driving their association beyond just foraging in the same area. Researchers found that “social and antipredatory factors may also play a role in the formation of these mixed-species groups.”
- Canadian scientists are baffled; at this time of year, endangered North Atlantic right whales come to the Bay of Fundy to feed. Last year, researchers counted 42 individuals, but this year they have only counted five, perhaps due to low levels of plankton there this summer. To my Canadian readers—Fisheries and Oceans Canada is asking the public to help them find the right whales, which may be showing up in nontraditional areas. Perhaps we should consider another theory—North Atlantic right whales have wised up to the fact that Canada does little to protect them, other than make plans to “evaluate,” “better understand,” and “consider” protection strategies, and have decided to get out of Dodge.
- What makes the world of a sperm so fundamentally different from that of a sperm whale? Hint: size matters. TED-Ed produced this animated video on the physics of swimming, explaining such concepts as the Reynold's Number ((Size x Speed x Density)/Viscosity), which scientists use to help compare the physiology of a swimming whale to that of a swimming bacterium (like a sperm). Sperm whales are fundamentally interacting with water molecules that are about a zillion times (is that a real number?) smaller than them. Meanwhile, sperm molecules interact with fluids made up of molecules about the same size as them. The sperm whale equivalent would be the oceans made up of water molecules the size of sperm whales. Not sure sperm whales would get around so easily in those circumstances.
- Norwegian whale hunters are satisfied with their increased catch this year, citing higher demand for whale meat, even though they only killed half the number of whales allowed by the government. I’m not convinced. As I noted in a recent blog on Iceland’s whaling, these hunts continue despite little interest in whale meat. No surprise there as the mercury content of whale meat could be dangerous.
- Taiji, the Japanese town made infamous by the documentary The Cove that exposed its annual dolphin slaughter, is researching a plan to open a marine park where visitors can swim with dolphins. Obviously, the dolphin swim will take place in a cove separate from the one where thousands of dolphins are stabbed to death each year. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Nice try. Maybe they’ll paint the dolphins at the swim park extra shiny to further distract attention.
- Officials in New Zealand announced plan to restrict fishing in certain waters to help save critically endangered Maui’s dolphins—the world's smallest and most endangered dolphins. Entanglement in fishing nets and lines is the leading threat to the species and a leading cause of death for marine mammals worldwide. Steps like these are necessary if we are going to save numerous populations from extinction.
- Sad: 22 long-finned pilot whales stranded on a Spanish beach earlier this week. Researchers don't know why, and half have already died.
- I've blogged extensively about this summer's unusual mortality event on the Atlantic seaboard that has claimed the lives of hundreds of dolphins and which may be due to viral infections exacerbated by human-caused degradation of coastal ecosystems. Well, thanks to the government shutdown, research into the cause of death and spread of the dolphin epidemic has ground to a halt.
- Click here to see cool photos of a humpback whale feeding frenzy in nearby Monterey Bay.
Meanwhile, this week in Wales…
Officials have felled 500 acres of ancient forest due to the spread of a fungus-like disease, undermining seven years of work to restore the historic Wentwood Forest to natural broadleaf woodland. Ugh.
Photo Credit: NOAA