The Beacon

Call of the Wild

King Penguins, South Georgia Island. WikiMedia Commons.

Have you ever wanted to learn how to speak whale?  Here’s your chance!

Cornell University has recently completed digitizing its catalog of animal sounds.  With audio and video recordings dating back to 1929, the archive contains over 9,000 species.

The recordings include the familiar call of the herring gull that you may have encountered threatening to steal your lunch on a New England beach and the subtle pulses of Atlantic hakeCornell’s scientists traveled from the Antarctic to Alaska, capturing the sounds of nature’s other languages.

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High-Tech Robot Seeks Out Right Whales

Chief scientist Mark Baumgartner secures glider (with its wings removed) after it was recovered Dec. 4 from its three-week mission. Photo by Nadine Lysiak, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) took place over the weekend, but one new high-tech babysitter was not featured in Las Vegas.  The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute has developed underwater robots to find, track, and protect baleen whales in the Gulf of Maine, particularly the highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale.

Between mid-November and early-December, the torpedo-shaped gliders located nine right whales, empowering regulators to institute a voluntary speed restriction in the area to decrease the threat of boat strikes.  This represents the first time an autonomous vehicle has successfully detected and reported the location of baleen whales.

Right whales were one of the first species to be dramatically affected by commercial whaling, and remain one of the most critically endangered species of whales, with less than 400 individuals in the North Atlantic population.  While whales can get caught as bycatch in commercial fisheries, run-ins with ships account for one third of all right whale deaths, so the ability to warn boats of their proximity is an important component of their continued protection.

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Save the Whales: Threats Old and New

Once a rallying cry of environmentalists and ocean lovers, the call to “Save the Whales!” has seemingly died down in recent years.  At the 2010 meeting of the International Whaling Commission, the 88 member countries even discussed lifting the ban on commercial whaling.  Though whaling is nearly extinct internationally—with the notable exceptions of Japan, Norway, and Iceland—this type of complacency may be premature.

Did we save the whales?

There is no doubt that the prohibition on commercial whaling has allowed whale populations to recover—some more successfully than others, but human activities continue to pose a major threat to all cetaceans: whales, purposes, and dolphins.

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The Real-Life Kraken, Caught on Tape

After a decade-long hunt almost as obsessive as Captain Ahab’s search for Moby Dick, a team of researchers and journalists from Japan’s National Science Museum, the Discovery Channel, and Japanese broadcaster NHK have captured video of the mysterious giant squid in its natural habitat, about 9 miles from ChiChi Island and 600 miles south of Tokyo.

This three meter long creature is actually on the small side; giant squids can grow to eight meters (twenty-six feet)!

These real-life underwater giants are believed to be the inspiration for the Kraken, a mythical Nordic sea monster known for attacking ships in the waters off of Scandinavia. Having inspired numerous artists and writers over the centuries, it is no surprise that this fantastical animal has captured the imaginations of scientists as well. 

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