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MarineBio Newsletter 7

MarineBio is pleased to bring you the 7th edition of our newsletter! We welcome your feedback on its content and would love to hear what you're interested in reading! Send your comments to: Joni@marinebio.org.

What's New?


“What you see and hear is a perfected performance born of millions of years of concerted practice in the most competitive environment imaginable.” – Dr. Carl Safina, Eye of the Albatross

Featured Species: Cetaceans!


Cetacea is the taxonomic order that includes all 81 known species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises—the mammals most fully adapted to aquatic life. The order is subdivided into two suborders: the baleen whales (Mysticeti) and the toothed whales (Odontoceti). They range in size from the small vaquita porpoise that only measures up to 1.5 m in length and weighs about 55 kg to the enormous blue whale that measures an average of 25 m in length and weighs around 100,000 kg!

Cetaceans evolved from land mammals (most likely from certain hoofed carnivores which also gave rise to the artiodactyls—the even-hoofed mammals, including pigs and the hippopotamus) that adapted to marine life about 50 million years ago. Recent comparisons of some milk protein genes suggest that the closest terrestrial living relative of whales may be the hippopotamus. Throughout their evolution, cetaceans have become perfectly suited to an aquatic environment and have undergone a number of changes (adaptations), including streamlined bodies for efficient movement through the water, forelimbs modified into flippers, a broader tail that consists of two large flukes used to powerfully propel their bodies through the water, the development of a thick layer of fat called blubber used for insulation and buoyancy, and a repositioning of the nostrils to the top of their head creating a blowhole used at the surface for respiration.

Although they breathe air, whales are able to dive for extended lengths of time because they have a higher percentage of oxygen carrying cells in their blood. In addition, during long dives their heart rates slow and blood flow is reduced thereby maximizing their use of oxygen.

Sperm whale, Physeter catodon
The sperm whale, Physeter catodon, aka the giant sperm whale, may reach 20.5 m (males) in length while females reach 12 m (sexually dimorphic).

Orca (Killer whale), Orcinus orcaLike all mammals, whales are nourished in the womb through an umbilical cord and after birth with milk from their mothers. Sexual maturity is not reached until 7-10 years of age in most species and most species give birth to only one calf every 1-3 years following a 9-18 month gestation period. Females care for their young for extended periods of time, often at least one year, feeding them and protecting them from predators. Many overhunted whale species are at greater risk of becoming endangered or extinct because of their low population numbers and reproductive rates.

Humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliaeWhales are highly intelligent and often very social creatures. They tend to travel in large pods andhelp each other raise young and find food. In addition, their unique ability to communicate orally is an indicator of their high intelligence given that it may contain some elements of a true language. Another indicator is the brain size of whales, which is larger in some species than any other animal.

Whale conservation has been an issue for many years and, although great strides have been made, these majestic creatures still need protection. Continue reading this issue of the MarineBio newsletter to learn about the reasons why whales are still in jeopardy.

References & Further Reading:
» Whale movies at ARKive!
» Jefferson, T.A., S. Leatherwood, and M.A. Webber, FAO species identification guide, Marine mammals of the world, Rome, FAO. 1993. 320 p. 587 figs.
» American Cetacean Society Fact Sheets
» OBIS-SEAMAP - Cetacea (cetaceans)
» Tree of Life Web Project. 2000. Cetacea. Whales, dolphins, and porpoises. http://tolweb.org
» Ellis, E. 1999. "Cetacea", Animal Diversity Web

Issues in Marine Conservation


WHALE CONSERVATION

A Bryde's whale aboard a Japanese "scientific" whaling ship
A Bryde's whale aboard a Japanese "scientificZ" whaling ship.

The stranding of a 17-foot long northern bottlenose whale in the Thames River in January generated worldwide media attention. Thousands of onlookers in London lined the banks of the river to watch the rescue efforts of marine life rescue groups, scientists, veterinarians, police, and port authority crews. Sadly the whale died of dehydration and other causes before the rescuers could relocate her to deeper water.

A bottle-nosed whale swimming up the River Thames, January 2006
A bottle-nosed whale swimming up the River Thames, January 2006.

The public's response to this incident was overwhelming and it brought attention to the need for whale conservation both in cases of strandings and in the wild. It is not known exactly how or why this whale found its way into the Thames River, however there was speculation that it was sick or that sonar from Navy vessels may have caused the animal to become confused. Sonar disturbance is just one of the many threats facing all whale species. They are also increasingly threatened by ocean pollution and they are being fished unsustainably—in spite of international legislation limiting whale catches. Sadly, strandings like the above happen frequently worldwide.

The International Whaling Commission, based in Cambridge, England, was established in 1946 under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling to provide for conservation of whale stocks and to ensure that measures taken to govern the conduct of the whaling industry are implemented. The IWC consists of 66 member countries that agree on measures such as: full protection for certain whale species, designation of whale sanctuaries, limits on the numbers and size of whales that may be taken, designation of seasons and areas for whaling, prohibiting the capture of suckling calves and their mothers. The IWC also facilitates whale research and publication of research findings.

In 1986, a moratorium on commercial whaling was enacted by the IWC. Nevertheless, countries such as Iceland, Japan, and Norway continue to take whales above and beyond acceptable catch limits. For example, during the 2005 IWC meeting, Japan announced plans to add humpback whales to its list of target species in spite of the zero quota established by the IWC for humpback whales. Japan is taking advantage of the IWC policy that allows nations to issue permits for scientists to kill whales for research purposes by claiming that their catches are for "scientific whaling." Investigations by the IWC Scientific Committee reports that these kills are for commercial purposes, not science.

A sperm whale aboard a Japanese "scientific" whaling ship
A sperm whale aboard a Japanese "scientific" whaling ship.

Whale species that are killed for commercial use include: Baird's beaked whales, bowhead whales, Bryde's whales, fin whales, gray whales, humpback whales, long and short-finned pilot whales, minke whales, sei whales, and sperm whales.

Countries must simply stop killing whales for commercial purposes or many of these species will not be able to maintain the necessary population levels needed to sustain their species. Of the species listed above, fin and sei whales, are endangered, which is defined by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) as “facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future.” Humpback and sperm whales are listed by the IUCN as vulnerable, which is defined as “a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future.”

In addition to the threats to sustainable great whale populations, whaling also threatens their welfare. The IWC and whale conservation organizations have long been fighting the inherently inhumane killing methods used by whalers, which has changed very little since the 1800s. Today, the most common method used is the penthrite grenade harpoon. This explosive harpoon is fired from a cannon and was designed to penetrate the whale's body to a depth of 30 cm before detonating and killing the whale, but death is not always instant and severe suffering is often endured by the whales before they die. For more information on the inhumanity of present-day whaling methods, visit Whalewatch.org and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The former is working hard to raise awareness on the plight of whales worldwide. Sea Shepherd is well-known for its fearless confrontations with the Japanese whalers in the Southern ocean. In December 2005, Sea Shepherd embarked on a campaign to fight Japanese whalers in the Antarctic using its flagship the Farley Mowat to intervene between the whales and the Japanese whaling fleet. The organization fought with determination and believes it successfully reduced the quota of whales targeted by the Japanese.

Efforts such as these will help put pressure on the nations that continue whaling in spite of the global moratorium, but unless those nations begin to cooperate with the policies of the IWC, whale species targeted for commercial purposes will remain in jeopardy.

Whales & Dolphin Conservation organizations
A universal metaphor: Australia's opposition to commercial whaling

Current Research


Autonomous Underwater Vehicles

Autonomous Underwater VehiclesAutonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), aka Gliders, are increasingly being used for deep sea research including deep sea floor mapping and surveying shipwrecks. According to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), AUVs are now also being used to monitor baleen whales through passive acoustic monitoring that improves on older methods, which were restricted in the amount of data they could collect by their stationary design moored to one location where they could only record data when marine mammals were nearby. The newer AUV is an ocean glider that resembles a model airplane or winged torpedo. The gliders, developed and operated by the WHOI Autonomous Systems Laboratory, can operate as deep as 1,000 meters (3,300 feet), and can move horizontally and vertically. The gliders are capable of recording a variety of data using high-resolution sensors that measure temperature, salinity, and fluorescence (or the abundance of phytoplankton). They can operate up to a month at a time and they move silently through the water, which enhances their use in passive acoustics studies.

WHOI conducted a five-day pilot study using the gliders in 2005 off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts where vocalizations of a number of species of baleen whales, including right, sei, and humpback, were digitally recorded. These and similar studies using the gliders will help scientists determine the habits of marine mammals over weeks to months by collecting both acoustic recordings and oceanographic measurements. The new AUV technology will allow scientists to collect data on baleen whales in ways that have not been possible before, which will ultimately help protect these endangered species from such threats as fishing gear entanglements (bycatch) and ship strikes. The technology will also be used in the future to monitor vocalizations of other marine mammals, such as dolphins, sperm whales, and the elusive beaked whales.Autonomous Underwater Vehicle

For more information see: Autonomous investigations of baleen whales

The Coastal Ocean Observation Lab (COOL) at Rutgers University Institute of Marine & Coastal Sciences (IMCS) and Webb Research Corporation are working together to develop and deploy a fleet of gliders that will continuously patrol coastal ocean waters. This technology will combine the mobility and long-range communication capabilities of the glider to provide continuous, near real time data on ocean physics and biology. Since November 2003, one glider has been deployed each month to patrol the New Jersey Shelf Observing Systems ENDURANCE LINE, which begins about ~5km southwest of the Rutgers University Marine Field Station and runs offshore to the continental shelf break, approximately 120 km offshore. Each mission ranges from 2-4 weeks, and provides data used by the COOL lab to build a historical database on the physics and biology of the New Jersey Shelf.s

The COOL lab has also deployed gliders near Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, Virginia Beach, Virginia, the West Florida Shelf, and the Sandy Hook National Recreation Area in New Jersey. Communication with the gliders is accomplished via Iridium Satellite phone link, which allows the COOL lab to retrieve data and assign new tasks remotely from the IMCS in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

The Sea Below ~ Expedition :: Florida


Florida beach

Although we're anxious to get back underwater to capture more photos and video of marine life, our most recent trip was spent topside in late December 2005 exploring the coasts of Florida to pinpoint where we'd like to set up offices for MarineBio. We visited some interesting sites along the way as we drove from Houston, Texas to the Florida panhandle, south along the west coast of Florida to Sarasota and east across the peninsula to the West Palm Beach area where we met up with Dr. James Wood in his hometown of Lake Worth, Florida.

Mote Marine Laboratory

While we were on the west coast, we visited the Mote Marine Laboratory and the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. Mote Marine Laboratory was a fascinating adventure and we enjoyed a fun interactive show in the “Immersion Cinema,” a 40-foot wide high-definition movie screen in a theater with interactive consoles where the audience can play along with the film and even compete with other audience members. We participated in the “The Dolphin Bay Project” where we observed Sarasota, Florida dolphins in their habitat and, using the interactive console, helped the science team search for a missing dolphin named Claire and her calf. We also used our consoles to vote on issues facing dolphin populations based on what we learned by watching the film.

sea bird

In addition to the Immersion Cinema, the aquarium at the Mote Marine Laboratory was a fascinating experience. The exhibits include the opportunity to observe two of Mote's working laboratories; one is focused on benthic (bottom) research and the other focused on the study of coral bacteria to find new ways to keep coral reefs healthy. We also enjoyed Mote's resident sea turtles, including “Hang Tough,” a blind green sea turtle that could not be released after he was rehabilitated. As a permanent resident of Mote Marine Laboratory, Hang Tough enjoys playing with his pvc pipe toy and is a real treat for visitors to see a green sea turtle up close and personal.

Our favorite part of the visit to the Florida Aquarium was the leafy sea dragon exhibit where we watched these amazing creatures feed. It was fun to hear comments from other visitors who at first thought the leafy sea dragons were plants!

We also visited Ft. Desoto State Park while we were on the west coast and took some photographs of terrestrial marine life including ospreys, snowy egrets, brown pelicans, herons, terns, and sea gulls.

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute

As we headed up the east coast toward Jacksonville on January 1, our last day in Florida, we decided to stop by Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Ft. Pierce. Unfortunately, the visitor's center was closed, but we had a great visit none the less. HBOI is planning to renovate its visitor center, which will include displays and exhibits, aquaria, and a small theater.

MarineBio Recommends


We highly recommend the following titles from Cambridge University Press:

Cephalopod Behaviour Roger T. Hanlon, 1998.
Conservation Biology Andrew S. Pullin, 2002.
Conservation of Exploited Species, Series: Conservation Biology (No. 6) John D. Reynolds, ed. 2001.
Darwin's Fishes, An Encyclopedia of Ichthyology, Ecology, and Evolution Daniel Pauly, 2004.
Designing Conservation Projects, People and Biodiversity in Endangered Tropical Environments Daniel H. Janzen, 1996.
Marine Biodiversity, Patterns and Processes Sir Crispin Tickell, 1997.


We hope you found this quarter's MarineBio Newsletter interesting. Click around MarineBio.org for more species, more research and more Marine Biology News. As always, we welcome all feedback.

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