Category Archives: Science

Whale Waste Does Not Go To Waste

An evocative and informative video clip, posted by Sustainable Human, complete with stunning footage of humpback whales, has been released to laud the biological benefits of whale waste. The key point is that as whales release their waste, the iron in their fecal matter spurs the photosynthesis performed by phytoplankton. This phytoplankton is food for zooplankton and other filter feeders. The phytoplankton also traps carbon dioxide. If those phytoplankters die, they sink to the bottom thus removing the CO2 from circulation.

Humpback whales feeding at the surface. Photo courtesy of Whale and Dolphin Coservation, taken by Karolina Jasinska.

Humpback whales feeding at the surface. Photo courtesy of Whale and Dolphin Coservation, taken by Karolina Jasinska.

This video introduces the story in an eye-catching manner. Robert Krulwich, co-host of NPR’s RadioLab, then does a great job of elaborating on the concept of whale feces providing the iron necessary to support this phytoplankton that generate much of the energy at the beginning of marine food webs. He also gives credit to Dr. Victor Smetacek from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research for first considering the connection between an iron-poor environment like the Antarctic and the enormous animals that were successful in finding ample food supplies in such a contradictory environment.

The connections between organisms are more complex than simple food chains, even though it is certainly much easier to explain the relationships as linear patterns.  Phytoplankton are eaten by more than 80 species of krill, 15,000+ species of copepod, thousands of species of fish, many of the shellfish we eat, and countless other species.  These food webs are the most robust when all levels, especially those considered to be the top of these trophic relationships are allowed to flourish. Removing something as significant as whales not only changes the dynamics within ocean ecosystems, it creates changes that belie our expectations.

Remarkable Photographs

Here’s a great way to start the week, with some excellent photography and a Guinness world record.  The waters of New England are too plankton rich to allow for such pictures. Of course, the plankton is the reason why the whales come to MA coastal waters to feed. That microalgae creates the energy needed for the food chains that support our feeding whales. It just makes cetacean photography a bit more challenging.

From The Daily Telegraph, Nine whales captured in a single frame by Australian underwater photographer Darren Jew: AUSTRALIAN underwater photographer Darren Jew waited decades to capture these magnificent images of whales swimming with free-diving record-holder Ai Futaki off the coast of Tonga.

The last photo in the series is an excellent face-to-face image. You get a close-up view of the tubercles (the round bumps) on the whale’s head. Each tubercle has a sensory hair in it. Enjoy.

Nine whales captured in a single frame by Australian underwater photographer

 

Cetaceans’ Salty Taste Buds

According to recent articles published by ScienceNOW and Smithsonian, researchers have discovered that the taste buds of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) only sense salty flavors. The other receptors have been shut off or have mutated. Thus, they are likely not able to taste unnatural flavors in the water, such as toxins, which are often bitter.  As the ScienceNOW article points out, and we emphasize here when discussing how cetaceans eat, these animals swallow their food whole, thus eliminating much of the need to taste the food.

The two articles referenced above are based on research published in Genome Biology and Evolution. Zoologist Huabin Zhao of Wuhan University in China led the study.

Illustration of Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus), including detail of tongue and baleen. Ca. 1830, from NBWM Kendall collection.

Illustration of Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus), including detail of tongue and baleen. Ca. 1830, from NBWM Kendall collection.

Right Whale Day Starts April Vacay!

Illustration: Dave Blanchette

Illustration: Dave Blanchette

The New Bedford Whaling Museum will kick off April vacation week kicks off with the annual Right Whale Day celebration on Monday, April 21. Every year, the Museum celebrates the highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale and raises awareness of a species whose survival depends upon humans wisely using ocean resources. This family friendly event provides many fun learning activities for kids and adults, with a focus on fostering greater awareness and appreciation.

Guests are invited to walk inside a life-sized inflatable right whale and stand next to a life-sized inflatable right whale calf for a photo. Take the coastal obstacle course challenge where participants attempt to survive the dangers right whales face in their migrations. Test your observation skills by identifying individual whales based on their markings. Learn to draw a right whale with author/artist, Peter Stone. End the day with a slice of “right whale cake”. The fun starts at 10:00 a.m. under the massive right whale skeleton on permanent exhibit in the Jacobs Family Gallery.

Right Whale Day schedule:

10:00 a.m. – 1:15 p.m. – Right Whale Obstacle Course (presented by the Museum’s high school apprentices)

10:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. –  Go Inside the Inflatable Whale (presented by Whale and Dolphin Conservation)

10:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. –  Make Right Whale Magnets & Whale Origami (presented by the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance)

10:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. -  Right Whale Crafts & Learning Activities (presented by Museum docents & high school apprentices)

10:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. –  Inflatable Right Whale Calf, Right Whale Information  & Photo-Op with the Right Whale Calf (presented by the NOAA Office of Education)

11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m. -  Right Whale Identification Activities (presented by Museum volunteers)

11:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. –  “Waltzes with Giants” readings with author/artist Peter Stone

12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m. – Learn to draw right whales with Peter Stone

1:35 p.m. –  Celebrate the now-permanent ‘Ship Strike Rule’ with some Right Whale cake

Vacation Week Activities –  Join the Museum throughout April vacation week for crafts, hands-on activities and lots of family fun. Participate in a highlights tour, go below deck on the world’s largest model whaleship, learn to throw a harpoon, create your own scrimshaw (with soap and shoe polish), and more.

The following April vacation week activities will take place from Tuesday, April 22 through Friday, April 25:

10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. – Free crafts and family activities. Create your own scrimshaw (using soap and shoe polish), throw a harpoon with our family-friendly harpoons and target rings, and more.

11:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. –  Participate in a 45-minute highlights tour with a Museum Docent. Tours leave from the front desk. (Regular admission rates apply)

10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. –  Free film “Ocean Frontiers: The Dawn of a New Era in Ocean Stewardship” in Cook Memorial Theater. “Ocean Frontiers” is an engaging, inspirational film that features four very different, but equally important success stories of ocean stewardship, including one that is taking place in Massachusetts Bay.

11:00 a.m. to Noon Go below deck on the Lagoda! (Regular admission rates apply)

Friday, April 25, from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. –  All aboard the Lagoda! Join the crew of Captain C. Weade on board the Lagoda for an adventure on the high seas! Travel the world, interact with new cultures, learn the ropes of a whaleship, and go a-whaling. (Regular admission rates apply).

Right Whale Day activities and April Vacation Week activities that take place in Jacobs Family Gallery, Cook Memorial Theater or on the Museum Plaza are FREE. Regular admission to all other galleries applies. Children must be accompanied by an adult. For more information, call 508-997-0064 or visit http://www.whalingmuseum.org/programs/april-vacation-week-2014.

 

Locking Tusks Over Narwhals

This great piece by Carl Zimmer of National Geographic delves into the question “What is the purpose of a narwhal’s tusk?” This has been debated for centuries. The newest hypothesis comes from Martin Nweeia, a Connecticut dentist and a clinical instructor at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. He believes it is a sensory organ, since it has nerves running throughout its length. This tusk could conceivably assist the animal in making sense of its surroundings.  His findings are published in The Anatomical Record.

Kristin Laidre, from University of Washington, who has done her own fair share of narwhal research, believes that the tusk has more of a macho function. Male deer and elk have antlers, male rhinos have horns, male narwhals have tusks.

This is a good debate. Perhaps they’re both correct. We shall see.

"Ceratodon monoceros, Brifs / Der Narwal / CL.XI.MAMM / 335 / ORD. I. CETACEA" , artist unknown, 1825-1850. Note the original genus name, which has since been changed to Monodon. From NBWM Kendall Collection.

“Ceratodon monoceros, Brifs / Der Narwal / CL.XI.MAMM / 335 / ORD. I. CETACEA” , artist unknown, 1825-1850. Note the original genus name, which has since been changed to Monodon. From NBWM Kendall Collection.

A Small but Critical Victory for Right Whales

rightwhale_phoenix_calf_seatoshorealliance_permit15488

Phoenix and calf. Sea to Shore Alliance photo.

Five years ago the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) enacted a seasonal ship strike rule to protect migrating, endangered North Atlantic right whales (NARW). This rule requires that vessels 65 feet (19.8m) or longer limit themselves to a maximum speed of 10 mph (16 kph) in designated zones (Seasonal Management Areas) during specified periods of time. For the Northeast, that meant January 1 – March 15 in Cape Cod Bay, March 1 – April 30 off Race Pt in Provincetown and April 1 – July 31 in the Great South Channel. The time frames for the mid-Atlantic and the Southeast reflect the months that NARWs are expected to be in those regions. This rule, proven to be effective so far, was important for the protection of this critically endangered species, the population of which is estimated at approximately 500 animals.

However, the rule had an end date attached to it, December 9, 2013. A year ago, the NBWM hosted colleagues from Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, (Provincetown) Center for Coastal Studies, Humane Society of the U.S., Rhode Island Audubon and other members of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium to announce a campaign to convince NOAA to drop the end date (also known as a sunset clause) from this rule. We debuted the campaign video ‘Act Right Now Save a Species’, held a panel discussion, and made a petition available for signature by any citizen. In the past year, over 145,000 comments were sent to NOAA and 75,000+ people signed the petition.

Today NOAA announced that it has dropped the sunset clause from the Ship Strike Rule, thus making the rule permanent.  Collisions between whales and vessels are typically fatal. Two of the skeletons that hang in our Museum, the North Atlantic right whale with fetus, and the blue whale were killed by vessel strikes. By forcing vessels to slow down during those times when NARWs are expected to be in a given area, both whales and mariners have greater opportunity to steer clear of each other. This is a win-win situation and has proven to be much less of a burden on vessel operators than previously estimated.

The issue of entanglement has yet to be solved. But on a rainy day, NOAA’s decision is indeed a bright beam of excellent news for an endangered species and for the dozens of people who dedicate themselves to studying and protecting the North Atlantic right whale.

 

Fixing a Problem with “Finding Nemo”

Every school group that comes in for a science program has heard, and will continue to hear, me correct one of the flaws in the animated film Finding Nemo.  To summarize, two of the fish characters, Dory and Marlin, escaped from the mouth of a blue whale by going down the whale’s throat and out through the blowholes. This is a physical impossibility. I actually yelled at the TV screen when I saw this.  I knew that I would have to talk about this scene with each and every student who came in for a program.

This scientific inaccuracy, along with a few others in the film, has struck a chord with a writer who is a half a world away, in India.  This article in Gizmodo gives the same explanation that our young visitors hear. Facts are facts, you can only spin them so many ways. It’s a fun read and corrects the original problem, and the anticipated follow up question (‘What comes out of the blowholes if it isn’t water?). The bulleted facts at the bottom of the article are interesting and educational.

Investigating the Information Hidden in Whale Ear Wax

The hottest whale story of the day involves ear wax. Several outlets NBC NewsScience World Report, and New Scientist, among others, have posted stories about information enclosed in the long, waxy earplug of a 12 year old male blue whale that beached in 2007 along the California coast.  These earplugs have been used previously to determine the age of baleen whales. The wax builds up in the ear canal of the whales, with no way for the wax to exit the head. Baleen whales have distinct annual cycles of feeding and fasting, much like trees have annual cycles of growth and dormancy. Distinct changes in the rings are seen every six months. The blue whale from which the plug was taken was estimated to be 12 years old, since it had 24 rings in the wax.

The researchers of this project had wondered about what else could be ascertained from analysis of the waxy earplug. The results are significant, since they were able to determine several factors about the animal’s life, including the toxins that had entered the young whale’s body. It has long been known that many nursing marine mammals pass the toxins in their bodies through their milk to their calves. This sad fact held true for this blue whale.

Blue Whale4 NOAA

Their paper “Blue Whale Earplug Reveals Lifetime Contaminant Exposure and Hormone Profiles” has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  The authors have summarized the significance of their research: “Currently, obtaining lifetime chemical profiles (i.e., from birth to death) is extremely rare and difficult for most of Earth’s animals. We have developed a unique approach to quantify hormone and contaminant lifetime profiles for an individual blue whale with a 6-mo resolution using the wax earplug as a natural matrix capable of archiving and preserving these temporal profiles. Using a male blue whale earplug, chemical analysis reveals lifetime patterns of mercury and organic pollutant exposure as well as fluctuating hormone levels. Specifically, we quantified contaminant maternal transfer, time to sexual maturity, and the doubling of stress over the animal’s lifespan. We anticipate that this technique will fundamentally transform our ability to assess human impact on these environmental sentinels and their ecosystems.”

It should be noted that one of the authors, Charles Potter, of the Smithsonian Institution, is a friend of the New Bedford Whaling Museum and has contributed his knowledge, expertise and insight to past Museum projects.

Great Photos of a Feeding Whale

This one doesn’t require much introduction. A photographer from Spain, named Eduardo Acevedo Fernandez, through some patience and luck was able to take some excellent close-up photos of a Bryde’s (pron. brood-us) whale feeding on sardines. (The front of the whale is on the left side of the photos) The throat pleats are completely extended, allowing the animal to engulf an amount of water and food equivalent to its own body volume. The water then got forced by the throat muscles through the 700-800 baleen plates hanging from its upper jaw, filtering out the sardines and sending the water back into the ocean. The whale then swallowed these small but numerous prey items. Enjoy the photos. They are very high quality.

Bryde's whale postcard, by Jean Vaughan. Produced for  International Whaling Commission, 1960-1990. From Kendall Collection.

Bryde’s whale postcard, by Jean Vaughan. Produced for International Whaling Commission, 1960-1990. From Whaling Museum Kendall Collection.

Protection for N.Atl. Right Whales May Become Permanent

Sixth months ago, on Saturday, December 9, the Whaling Museum hosted a press conference to announce the campaign to make the 2008 NOAA ‘Ship Strike Rule’ permanent. This rule was put in place for five years to test its effectiveness in protecting North Atlantic right whales in their habitat along the east coast of the United States. The rule dictates that during seasons in which NARWs are known to be in a given area at a certain time of the year ((e.g. in Cape Cod Bay from January 1 – May 15) ships greater than 65 feet must slow to 10 knots. The time periods for these slower speeds vary based on where the whales are expected to be during the year. This rule has proven to be very effective. No whales have been reported as having been struck in these Seasonal Management Areas since the rule went into effect. The cost to mariners is less than anticipated. The rule is having the desired effect.

Two days ago, on Wednesday, June 5, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration opened a 60-day comment period for the proposal to make Speed Restrictions to Protect North Atlantic Right Whales (50 CFR 224.10), colloquially known as the Ship Strike Rule, permanent. The New Bedford Whaling Museum, Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), Rhode Island Audubon Society, Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, select faculty from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Right Whale team from the New England Aquarium and other members of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium (NARWC) all support making this rule permanent. It could certainly be made stronger by expanding the restriction to all vessels, not just those 65 feet or longer. But the simple elimination of the ‘sunset date’ of December 9, 2013 would be a testament to the effectiveness of this rule and a big step in expanding protections for a species whose population numbers somewhere around 500.

North Atlantic Right Whale female and calf. NOAA photo.

North Atlantic Right Whale female and calf. NOAA photo.

We invite you to learn more about the effectiveness of this rule by viewing the campaign video commissioned by WDC. This video features excellent footage of NARWs and the Museum’s right whale skeleton, Reyna – a whale killed by ship strike, and commentary from several members of the NARWC. Your comments to NOAA are welcome and encouraged.