The oceans are getting louder and forcing some whale to speak up, according to a study published yesterday in the journal Biology Letters.
Lead researcher Susan Parks of Penn State University eavesdropped on seven male and seven female North Atlantic right whales by attaching acoustic tags to them via suction cups. Each tag recorded from 2 to 18 calls, which included the whales’ greeting “upcalls” (seemingly questioning “hmm?” sounds that go from a low to high pitch — see video), as well as background noise–believed to come from commercial shipping.
Bioacoustics researcher Christopher Clark of Cornell University, who did not participate in the study, says that ocean noise is becoming a serious issue.
“If I had to immerse you into the sea off Boston, you’d be shocked. You’d be like a country mouse dropped in the middle of Heathrow Airport,” says Clark. “In one generation, we have raised the background level for an entire ocean ecosystem.” [New Scientist]
Twelve million years ago, one sperm whale was king. Between 40 and 60 feet in length the beast scientists named Leviathan melvillei wasn’t any bigger than today’s sperm whales, but look at those teeth!
As described in a paper published in Nature today, Olivier Lambert discovered the whale’s fossils in a Peruvian desert. The creature’s name says it all:
[It] combines the Hebrew word ‘Livyatan’, which refers to large mythological sea monsters, with the name of American novelist Herman Melville, who penned Moby-Dick — “one of my favourite sea books”, says lead author Olivier Lambert of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. [Nature News]
The prehistoric sperm whale may have eaten baleen whales, and its largest chompers are a foot long and some four inches wide. For all the details, check out Ed Yong’s post on Not Exactly Rocket Science.
80beats: Lady Humpback Whales Make Friends & Meet up for Summer Reunions
80beats: Whales vs. Navy: NOAA May Limit Sonar Tests, but Another Case Heads to Court
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80beats: Update: International Whaling Deal Falls Apart
80beats: Is the Whaling Ban Really the Best Way to Save the Whales?
This week’s crucial whaling meeting continues until Friday has come and gone, but the result is… nothing.
As we reported last week, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was ready to consider a proposal to lift a quarter-century-old moratorium on whaling, in exchange for agreements from whaling nations like Japan, Norway, and Iceland to reduce their catches over the coming decade.
Whaling in Antarctic waters, where Japan hunts hundreds of whales each year, would have been sharply curtailed. But that became the major sticking point in the talks. Delegates said that Japan and antiwhaling nations could not reach agreement on the size of the catch and that Tokyo had balked at agreeing to eventually phase out the hunt altogether [The New York Times].
The talks will continue into next year while some whaling continues under loopholes in the old rules. But given the present impasse it seems like the IWC nations are a long way from agreeing on anything.
80beats: Ahead of Critical Meeting on Whaling, Japan Accused of Buying Votes
80beats: Will Commercial Whale Hunts Soon Be Authorized?
80beats: Videos Show Collision Between Japanese Whaling Ship & Protesters
80beats: Is the Whaling Ban Really the Best Way to Save the Whales?
Image: Flickr/ Rene Ehrhardt
Brown pelicans smothered by BP’s oil spill may be the symbols of sadness for the disaster in the Gulf, but they are, of course, far from the only animals affected. Marine scientists are watching other species for signs of danger.
Late last week, scientists spotted the first dead whale seen in the Gulf since the leak began gushing oil in April. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found a 25-foot-long sperm whale washed up, and now it is testing the sea creature for cause of death.
“While it is impossible to confirm whether exposure to oil was the cause of death, NOAA is reviewing whether factors such as ship strikes and entanglement can be eliminated,” the agency said. Samples collected from this carcass will be stored until the Pisces returns to port on July 2, or possibly if another boat is sent to meet the Pisces. Full analysis of the samples will take several weeks [New Orleans Times-Picayune].
So far, it at least appears that manatees have been spared toxic exposure to the ever-growing oil spill. However, a science team hunkered down at Dauphin Island in Alabama—in the path of the oil—say their luck may not hold.
Until recently, biologists believed that manatees rarely ventured west of peninsular Florida, where, so far, no oil has appeared. But in 2007, Ruth Carmichael, who leads the Dauphin Island team, began documenting a relatively large summer migration of manatees to Mobile Bay, Ala. — leading them directly into and through the path of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon leak. From a couple of dozen to as many as 100 come to Mobile Bay for the summer, out of a total North American population of 5,000, she said [The New York Times].
And now, a sordid story about whaling.
This weekend, The Sunday Times of London published an expose charging the Japanese government with using foreign aid, cash, and even call girls to bribe nations on the International Whaling Commission into voting Japan’s way and supporting the country’s whaling.
Japan denies buying the votes of IWC members. However, The Sunday Times filmed officials from pro-whaling governments admitting:
- They voted with the whalers because of the large amounts of aid from Japan. One said he was not sure if his country had any whales in its territorial waters. Others are landlocked.
- They receive cash payments in envelopes at IWC meetings from Japanese officials who pay their travel and hotel bills.
- One disclosed that call girls were offered when fisheries ministers and civil servants visited Japan for meetings [The Times].
The full story is full of slimy details, like the allegation that Japan paid for Guinea’s IWC membership and that the latter country’s minister demanded a car and spending money, or the Tanzanian minister’s assertion that prostitutes would be made available in exchange for support. But most importantly, the story comes out with a crucial IWC meeting on the horizon. The annual get-together is in Morocco this month, where the nations will debate a possible end to the moratorium that dates back to 1986.
Scientists have long thought humpbacks loners. New research shows this isn’t so: Researchers have observed some female whale form friendships that last for years. The behavior has only been observed in lady humpbacks of similar age, with the whales going their separate ways during the breeding season, but reuniting in the open ocean each summer. These bonds can be quite strong: the longest association endured for six years.
The study appears in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, and it also found that the whales with the longest-lasting associations gave birth to the most calves–another animal kingdom example that friendship is beneficial. The whales are probably improving their feeding efficiency, suggests lead author Christian Ramp.
“Staying together for a prolonged period of time requires a constant effort. That means that they feed together, but likely also rest together…. So an individual is adapting its behaviour to another one.” [BBC]
There are about 20,000 gray whales living in the eastern Pacific Ocean today, plus another 200 in a small group in the western Pacific. And, in the Mediterranean Sea, scientists have found one.
Over the weekend, oceanographers saw a solitary gray whale cruising the Mediterranean off the coast of Israel. To say they were surprised would be a vast understatement: gray whales haven’t lived in the Atlantic Ocean or the Mediterranean since their population crashed in the 1700s, possibly because of whaling operations. Yet today a solitary gray whale swims by the shores near Tel Aviv, halfway across the world from where the rest of its species resides (the researchers say they photographed the animal to be sure it wasn’t a different species, like sperm whale).
So what happened to get this whale to the far side of the world? Says Phillip Clapham of the US government’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle:
“The most plausible explanation is that it came across an ice-free North-West Passage from the Pacific Ocean, and is now wondering where the hell it is” [New Scientist].
After 24 years of championing a ban on commercial whaling, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) will soon weigh a proposal seeking to resume commercial whaling. The plan would let Japan, Norway and Iceland hunt the ocean giants openly despite a 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling. In return, whaling nations would agree to reduce their catch “significantly” over 10 years [AFP]. These pro-whaling nations have kept up their hunts either by officially objecting to the moratorium or by insisting that they’re killing whales for scientific research.
The proposal is due to be submitted before the body’s annual meeting in June in Morocco, leading some conservationists to complain that the IWC should “save whales, and not whaling.” The details of the proposal will made public on Earth day–April 22. Calling the withdrawal of the ban “the best chance to fight overfishing of these animals,” U.S Commissioner to the IWC Monica Medina said: “It’s a global problem, and needs global solutions” [Washington Post].
Making its case to pull back the ban, the IWC said that during the last few decades whale populations have substantially rebounded–with bowhead whale populations off Alaska increasing to between 8,200 and 13,500, eastern Pacific gray whale numbers rising to between 21,900 and 32,400 in 1999, and blue whale populations also rising. Conservationists, however, are seething, pointing out that 1,800 to 2,200 whales continue to be killed each year. “It’s great to be showing success, but should we be planting the flag and saying, ‘We’re there’?” asked Howard Rosenbaum, who directs the ocean giants program at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “We’re not out of the woods yet” [Washington Post].
Is Paul Bethune a pirate? Bethune is an anti-whaling activist who boarded a Japanese whaling vessel on Monday, demanding to make a citizen’s arrest of the skipper; he reportedly planned to charge the skipper with attempted murder due to the collision between the whaling boat and the activists’ powerboat, the Ady Gil, last month. Not just that, he also slapped a bill on the captain, seeking $3 million dollars for the damage caused to the Ady Gil.
Bethune is now being held in the whalers’ custody, and may be tried in a Japanese court for charges of trespassing and assault. But one expert suggests that he also faces the possibility of being viewed as a pirate–for not just boarding a vessel illegally, but also making demands for money.
This incident is the latest in an escalating series of skirmishes on the high seas between anti-whaling activists of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, of which Bethune is a member, and the Japanese whaling industry. The whaling wars have also intensified a diplomatic tussle between Japan and Australian and New Zealand, with the Kiwis demanding a halt to the hunting and the Australian government saying it hasn’t ruled out the prospect of taking legal action against the whalers after gathering evidence that it’s presenting to the International Whaling Commission [BusinessWeek].
Whales and the U.S. Navy have tangled repeatedly over the past years over charges that the Navy’s sonar exercises disorient or injure whales and other marine mammals. Now, whales in the Pacific appear to have a new champion: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is considering limiting the Navy’s sonar tests in certain marine mammal “hot spots.”
The announcement was made in a letter (pdf) from NOAA head Jane Lubchenco to the White House Council on Environmental Quality. NOAA also called for development of a system for estimating the “comprehensive sound budget for the oceans,” which could help reduce human sources of noise — vessel traffic, sonar and construction activities — that degrade the environment in which sound-sensitive species communicate [Los Angeles Times].
While NOAA’s new investigations into limiting the Navy’s sonar use is good news for whales, it may take years before new rules are issued. And until then, fights will rage on in courts. Back in 2008, a 5-4 vote in the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the Navy to conduct sonar tests in the Pacific Ocean, despite environmental groups fighting to stop the tests. But that wasn’t the end of litigation over this issue. Last week a consortium of environmental groups sued the Navy in U.S. District Court to stop a sonar project on the other side of the country, in the Atlantic Ocean waters off Florida.
The proposed Undersea Warfare Training Center would cover 500 square nautical miles in an area ideally close to two Navy bases, one in Georgia and another in Florida. However, the range would lie just outside the shallow waters where right whales give birth and nurse their calves each year from mid-November to mid-April [Los Angeles Times]. Right whales are an endangered species numbering only about 350, researchers believe.