New Study Provides Insight Into North Atlantic Right Whale Calf Development And Life Histories

North Atlantic Right Whale mother and her calf, courtesy of New England Aquarium

HYANNIS – A new study led by the New England Aquarium is using genetic testing to expand knowledge of the parentage, survival, growth rates and life history of North Atlantic Right Whale calves, including the revelation that four calves previously believed dead are currently alive.

For decades, whale histories have been tracked primarily through photo-identification gathered by the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalogue.

The study, which involved researchers from five organizations and agencies including NOAA and the Florida Fish & Wildlife institute, analyzed all right whale calves born between 1988 and 2018 using both genetic samples and photo identification, focusing on 13 case studies requiring genetics to track their life history data.

By using both genetic samples and photography in tandem, scientists can improve their ability to catalogue right whale life history.

“It is often difficult to document the tremendous variation in the behavior and development exhibited by animals in the wild,” said Phillip Hamilton, Senior Scientist at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life and lead author of the study.

“The results of this study have changed what we know about the separation time between a mother and calf as well as calves’ physical development, all crucial information for a critically endangered species that numbers less than 350 individuals,” he added.

The research revealed that young right whale calves stray from their mothers more often than previously thought.

Due to a lack of distinguishing features for right whale calves, such as the irregular white growths on their heads known as callosities, calves were previously identified through their proximity to their mothers, leading to the assumption the calves had died when their mothers were later spotted alone.

Through genetic sampling, mothers and calves have been identified apart from each other in 10 to 40 percent of all sightings in their spring and summer feeding locations, with some calves associating with different right whale mothers over short periods of time.

This information confirmed the living status of four calves presumed to be dead.

Scientists hope the findings will allow them to continue to develop their understanding of the early stages of right whale development.

“Genetically sampling animals early in their lives before they disperse of separate from their mothers provides an important means of individual identification at a time when photo-identification is not as reliable,” said Hamilton.

“All of this information is critical to help save this species from the brink of extinction.”

The study was published in a recent edition of the journal Mammalian Biology.

To view the study, click here.


By, Matthew Tomlinson, NewsCenter

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