Cape Cod Researcher Investigating New Species of Whale

PHOTO COURTESY OF WHOI Rarely-observed Omura's whales were the topic of study conducted by a team who spent over 2 years with 44 groups off the coast of Madagascar

PHOTO COURTESY OF WHOI
Rarely-observed Omura’s whales were the topic of study conducted by a team who spent over 2 years with 44 groups off the coast of Madagascar

BARNSTABLE – A study being conducted by a Cape Cod based researcher is slowly revealing details about the recently discovered Omura’s whales.

Sal Cerchio, a visiting scientist with the New England Aquarium, is working on a year-long acoustic monitoring study of the whales off the coast of Madagascar.

“We’ll get a handle on the seasonality of their occurrence,” he said.

Cerchio said researchers believe they do reside off the coast of Madagascar year-round and are hoping to learn if that is the case from the study.

“We’ll also get a feeling of what kind of noise conditions they are subjected to,” Cerchio said.

The study began in November when researchers placed a number of sound recorders around the habitat that will collect data for six months. While the crews were there they made 80 individual whale sightings, which was twice as many as the previous four years combined. The increased number of whales was attributed to an unprecedented amount of krill, which is the whales food source.

Cerchio will return to Madagascar this spring to collect the data from the recordings and drop them again to collect another six months of sound.

In the last trip by researchers other scientific observations were made.

The whales were seen feeding frequently and videotaped and a record five mother/calf pairs were counted.

A specific female Omura’s whale was also sighted for the third time in four years which indicated the population may reside off Madagascar or visit that area annually.

The New England Aquarium released a video of the Omura’s whales last week, which can be seen in the video below.

A previous two year study had been conducted which provided detailed descriptions of the marine mammals.

“This was the first time that any researchers had ever actually worked with the animal in the wild. It’s the first time is was really documented in the wild,” Cerchio said. “And a lot of new information is coming out.”

Over the two year study the team observed 44 groups, collected skin biopsies from 18 whales and made recordings of their calls.

The whales, which were mistakenly identified as Bryde’s whales, typically measure between 33 and 38 feet long and dwell in remote regions of the sea.

Cerchio said it could be a while to develop conservation strategies.

“When you don’t know about a species and when you don’t know about a population it’s very difficult to understand what threats there might be,” he said.

He said there has been a recent boom in the exploration of oil off the Madagascar coast which could present a risk of disturbing the mammal’s habitat.

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