The Beacon

Blog Tags: Whales

10 Ways the Oil Spill Could Affect Marine Life

oiled bird

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

While oil-covered birds have become an emblematic image of catastrophic oil spills, sea birds aren’t the only ones affected. Oil is extremely toxic to all wildlife, and the toxic effects on marine life begins as soon as the oil hits the water.

 


Here are 10 examples of how marine life may be affected by the Gulf spill in the coming days, weeks and years


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Oil Spill Threatens Hundreds of Species

It just keeps getting worse.

A NOAA scientist has concluded that oil is leaking into the Gulf of Mexico at the rate of 5,000 barrels a day, five times the initial 1,000 per-day estimate. And a third leak was discovered yesterday afternoon. 

If the estimates are correct, the spill, which is nearly the size of Jamaica, could match or exceed the 11 million gallons spilt from the Exxon Valdez within two months -- becoming the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

 


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Where Are They Now?: Chanel Gemini, Nika Kashyap & Sabina Van Tilburg

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the 2009 Ocean Heroes finalists.

Today we’re catching up with 2009 ocean hero finalists Sabina van Tilburg, Chanel Gemini and Nika Kashyapone, the three girl scouts who were instrumental in convincing the state of Hawaii to become the first state in the U.S. to officially recognize World Oceans Day. They obtained over 650 signatures on their petition and received the support of many non-profits and government agencies such as the Nature Conservancy and NOAA.

Here’s Sabina's update:

“As a Girl Scout troop, we are currently working on our Gold Award, the highest award for Girl Scouts and selling lots and lots of cookies! We have recently been focusing on recycling, gardening, buying local, and learning more about our community. Along with that we have been participating in a lot of beach clean ups, fishpond clean ups and restorations, working in the lo'i which are Hawaiian taro patches, and counting whales with NOAA, which you can learn more about at http://hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov/involved/ocwelcome.html "

Inspired? Nominate someone you know -- young or old -- to be this year's ocean hero.


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Whale Wednesday: Pop Quiz

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

You only have until this Friday to take the Ocean IQ Quiz for a chance to win prizes, including a trip with SEE Turtles to watch sea turtles in the wild.

Here’s a whale-only quiz just for fun -- but no prizes here -- you have to go take the real quiz.

 

1. Scientists use the distinctive areas of hard pale skin on Northern right whales to tell individuals apart. What are they called?

a. fingernails

b. warts

c. callosities

d. eczemas


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Whale Wednesday: Sushi Sting

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

On this hump day, a few cetaceous stories for your perusal:

As you've probably heard, the team behind Sunday’s Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove” exposed Santa Monica sushi restaurant The Hump for serving illegal whale meat. The possession or sale of marine mammals -- in this case, the endangered sei whale -- is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and can lead to a year in prison and a fine of $20,000.

And on the brighter side, the BBC has a remarkable slideshow of images showing a sperm whale surface feeding off the coast of New Zealand. Surface feeding is uncommon for sperm whales, who usually hunt many meters below the sea’s surface -- this individual must have been pretty hungry.


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Whale Wednesday: Squid Herding?

Image via wikimedia commons.

BBC News reports that Oregon scientists using impressive tagging technology have shown that sperm whales may work together in a kind of zone offense to hunt their squid prey.

The researchers have evidence of the whales staying together over several months in the Gulf of Mexico. And their behavior varied with each deep dive, indicating that they alternate roles to spread out the physiological demand of the 1,000-meter dives.

One researcher said that the some whales appeared to guard the bottom of a squid bait ball, while others took advantage of the center of the ball.

Other research has suggested dolphins may exhibit herding behavior, but this is the first evidence in sperm whales; some scientists remain skeptical.

Just remember, whales: there is no "I" in "team."


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Jean-Michel Cousteau On Orcas

"When you take a wild cetacean (a whale or dolphin) and put it in a tank, its acoustic system is suddenly screwed up. Its sonar reverberates off of the concrete in its tank and, little by little, the animal becomes totally silenced. It’s like a person being blindfolded in a jail cell. The orcas are not used to borders or barriers, and that probably makes them very uncomfortable. Some of them don’t accept captivity and die, but others do and live like they are in prison."

That's Jean-Michael Cousteau reflecting on killer whales in the wake of last week's death of a trainer at Sea World. Cousteau is one of the world's experts on orcas and gives a fascinating, wide-ranging interview to the Santa Barbara Independent about whales and dolphins in the wild and in captivity, including a description of the enormous effort it took to rehabilitate and free Keiko, the orca that starred in "Free Willy." It's well worth a read.


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Whale Wednesday: Going Batty Edition

Bats and toothed whales share the ability to squeak and click their way to prey. And now two new studies in this week’s journal Current Biology reveal that their echolocation, which evolved independently in the two groups, has a similar underlying molecular mechanism.

There are plenty of examples of evolutionary convergence, such as the tusks of elephants and walruses, or the bioluminescence of fireflies and jellyfish.

But it’s highly unusual for convergence to occur at the molecular level. Turns out the inner ear hair cells of both the bottlenose dolphin (a toothed whale) and 10 species of bats contain a protein called prestin, which plays an important role in echolocation.

But not all echolocaters are created equal. Because the speed of sound in water is five times that in air, dolphins can use echolocation for more than 100 meters. Bats can only do so for a few meters. 

(Hat tip to Monterey Bay’s Sea Notes blog for this story.)


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Whale Wednesday: Evolution is Cool Edition

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Killer whales may be evolving into two separate species in the North Atlantic, says new research out of the UK. (Who knew orcas were common in UK waters, anyway?)

The researchers discovered that the two groups, which they have creatively dubbed "Type 1" and "Type 2" have different wear on their teeth, suggesting different diets and thus different ecological niches. Then, genetic analysis confirmed that the two types of killer whale belong to different populations.

The scientists compared the findings to how Darwin's finches adapted to fill unique ecological roles.

So what does this mean for the future of the North Atlantic killer whales? If Type 1 and Type 2 become separate species, they would require separate conservation monitoring efforts.

And if that happens, hopefully the powers that be will think of some catchier names for them.


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Whale Wednesday: Tiny and Weird Edition

An Australian paleobiologist has made a curious discovery about the origins of baleen whales. Studying the 25-million-year-old fossil of a primitive toothed baleen whale, Mammalodon colliveri, Dr. Erich Fitzgerald hypothesized that the early whale used its tongue and short, blunt snout to suck small prey from sand and mud on the seafloor. Yummy.

Fitzgerald’s work supports Darwin's notion that some of the earliest baleen whales may have been mudsuckers before they were filter-feeders.

And apparently the three-meter-long Mammalodon was actually a dwarf, though its name brings to mind its relative, the blue whale -- the largest animall in the history of the world.

As Dr. Fitzgerald said, “Clearly the seas off southern Australia were a cradle for the evolution of a variety of tiny, weird whales that seem to have lived nowhere else.”


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