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Blog Tags: Cetaceans

Q&A: Sperm Whale Researcher Shane Gero

A mother sperm whale nursing her calf. [Image courtesy Shane Gero.]

The spring issue of Oceana magazine is now available online! We are especially excited about the Q&A in this issue, which I did with sperm whale researcher Shane Gero.

Gero, who wrote an incredible guest blog post for us last year, is working on his PhD at Nova Scotia's Dalhousie University, and is the lead researcher for the Dominica Sperm Whale Project.

He has has spent thousands of hours at sea observing families of sperm whales off the coast of the Caribbean island of Dominica. His research marks the first time that scientists have tracked individual sperm whales from birth into maturity, and it provides insights into sperm whale society, diet, genetics, communication and culture. Prepare to be amazed:

How did you become interested in sperm whales?

They are the largest of the toothed whales, among the deepest divers, have the planet’s largest brain, and they can be found in every ocean and most coastal seas and gulfs on the planet, so as a result they are a significant part of the ocean ecosystem. They also live in complex multi-level societies, have a highly sophisticated communication system, and show signs of culture – so there are lots of interesting questions to explore.

During your research have you become attached to any of the individual whales?

I don’t pretend that the animals know who I am, but I have followed some of these whales since birth. I have been there as they have played with their siblings, nursed from their mothers and through the toils and troubles of growing up. As a result, I feel an obligation to them to share their stories in an effort to ensure they have a healthy ocean in which to raise the next generation.

What do you see as the biggest threats facing sperm whales?

While whaling for sperm whales has largely stopped, humans are still the sources of the major threats to sperm whales. Chemical and heavy metals are being found in the tissues of animals from around the world, including those as far away as Antarctica, and animals can become entangled in fishing gear including longline and gill nets. But ocean noise is increasingly being seen as a major threat to cetaceans around the world.

Close your eyes and imagine you’re a sperm whale. Your world is mostly darkness. In order to stay connected with your family you play a constant game of Marco Polo. You see with sound. Now imagine a constant background noise from all around blurring the echoes. As humans it might compare to living in a rock concert your whole life, just asking your neighbor a simple question would be difficult.

Why do you think sperm whale conservation is important?

On an evolutionary timeline, sperm whales are among the oldest of the toothed whales. They have lived in the oceans for longer than modern humans have walked upright. Both the whales and humanity depend on the ocean for survival, so in some ways, I am not asking people to care about sperm whales specifically, I am just asking them to care. If more people feel the shared burden we all have to protect the oceans then I will have done my job.

Anything else you want to share about sperm whales or your research?

Ultimately, what I have learnt from these families of sperm whales thus far is simple. Love your family. Learn from your grandmothers’ experience. Be a good neighbor. Share the burden of your responsibilities by working together. Spend time with your older brother because eventually he moves away. And most importantly, life, it seems, is about the relationships one builds with those around them.


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New Dolphin Species Discovered

Exciting news for cetacean lovers: DNA testing has revealed that what scientists had thought was a small population of bottlenose dolphins is actually a distinct species – one of only a few species of dolphin that have been discovered since the late 1800s.

The new species has been named the Burrunan dolphin— “Burrunan” is the Aboriginal word for a large porpoise-like fish. The Burrunan dolphin has a stubbier nose and a more curved dorsal fin than the bottlenose dolphin.

There are about 150 of the dolphins swimming off the coast of Melbourne. Because their small population and proximity to urban and agricultural centers, the dolphins may be threatened by runoff that ends up in their habitat, as well as commercial fishing and boat traffic.

Check out this video of the Burrunan dolphins from The Canberra Times:


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Photo of the Week: Long-finned Pilot Whales

long-finned pilot whales

© Oceana/Carlos Minguell

The Ranger crew spotted these gorgeous long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas) off the coast of Calahonda, Spain.

As you can see, these cetaceans have a bulbous head and short jaw, with flippers that almost look like elbows due to their sharp backward bend. Long-finned pilot whales feed mainly on deep-sea squid and octopus, and they are quite sociable, often living in groups of hundreds. They sometimes become disoriented in shallow waters and have been known to strand in large numbers.

Stay tuned for a new photo each week!


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Whale Wednesday: Beaked Breakthrough

cuvier's beaked whale

A Cuvier's beaked whale off the coast of Spain. © Oceana/Jesus Renedo

It's been a while since we started the Whale Wednesday weekly feature, and I don't think beaked whales have ever gotten their day in the spotlight. Today's the day, then, for this mysterious group of cetaceans.

The BBC reports that researchers from Duke University observed the largest group of Arnoux's beaked whales -- around 60 -- ever recorded, off the coast of Antarctica.

Male beaked whales have tusks that emerge from their lower jaws, and in general beaked whales are deep divers. Of the 21 known species of beaked whales, only a few are well-known, including the Cuvier's beaked whale and the Baird's beaked whale.

But their obscurity hasn't made the members of the Ziphiidae family safe from threats.  As trawl nets have gone into deeper waters, the enigmatic creatures have become more frequent bycatch victims. 

As one of the Duke scientists, Dr. Ari Friedlander, told BBC, "The Arnoux's were a unique and amazing experience. Hopefully this brief glimpse will spawn further work to better understand the species, their distribution and behaviour, and how these animals fit into the larger ecology of the southern ocean."

 


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Whale Wednesday: Whales on the Brain

A few weeks ago, I wrote about research that suggests whales and dolphins have cultures the same way humans do. A recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine points to similarities in the brains of social animals -- whales, great apes, and yes, humans -- that might explain the ability to work within social structures. Combining lab research with fieldwork and medical studies, scientists have discovered that the presence of von Economo neurons signifies ability to successfully communicate with others. Elephants and whales, like humans, operate in elaborate societies, quickly adapting to changing situations, such as rescuing an abandoned calf. The absence or destruction of these neurons, as in the case with certain neurological diseases, leads to a break down in social skills and adaptability.


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Whale Wednesday: Cetacean Culture

When talking about whales and culture, I typically think of the role these marine mammals play in island societies, a la Whale Rider and the Maori of New Zealand. But recent research on whales and dolphins show that whales can be the same species, genetically similar, and even occupy the same habitat yet individual pods behave and interact with each other very differently. It is almost as if within species of whales there are different cultures. While it has been known for decades that whales have different vocalization patterns, the type of generational research performed in labs on smaller animals like primates and birds is just starting to happen for these larger marine animals and indications of “personhood” behaviors are beginning to emerge. Scientists have shown that certain primates are self aware, have feelings, and high-level cognitive powers and according to new research, whales and dolphins do too.


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The Oceana Scanner: Friendly Cetacean Edition

This week in ocean news,

...a federal advisory panel weighed a ban on salmon fishing in California after a dramatic decline in the fishery. "The situation now is unprecedented and off the charts," said the executive director of the Pacific Fishery Management Council...

...a University of Tasmania scientist discovered two new types of toxic algae in the Southern Ocean, which he believes must be calculated into fishing quotas to prevent further overfishing...


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