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Endangered whales are giving birth to fewer babies, decades-long study finds – Scientific Inquirer

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A world-class collaborative research project has found that Australia’s southern right whale population is calving less frequently and fewer whales have visited our coasts this whaling season than expected, putting further pressure on an already endangered species.

Using drones, researchers recorded unique encounters that the team had never seen before, including two calves nursing from one female, and interactions between whales and sharks, playful sea lions and dolphins.

For more than 30 years, researchers have conducted annual surveys of southern right whales in the coastal waters of southern Australia. Curtin University recently teamed up with the Minderu Foundation, Yalata Anangu Aboriginal Corporation, who offered access to the Bight area and accommodation for staff for two months each year in kind, and continued to work with citizen scientists, Eyre Peninsula Cruises, Flinders University , government organizations and non-governmental organizations continue efforts to protect the population’s recovery.


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Lead researcher Dr Claire Charlton, of the Curtin Center for Marine Science and Technology, said although southern right whales had increased from just 300 in the southern hemisphere to almost 3000 in the Australian population, recent numbers had been lower than expected. years and increasing calving intervals was a cause for concern.

“Instead of having a calf every three years – on average, most whales now have a calf every four or five years,” Dr Charlton said.

“In other parts of the southern right whale’s range in Argentina, Brazil and South Africa, increased calving intervals have been linked to climate change and slower recovery rates, so it is important for us to understand how climate change and human activities may affect their recovery.

“We know the key threats to whale populations are habitat disturbance, underwater noise from marine vessels and entanglement, so we must do everything we can, including legislative protection, to ensure they expand into new habitats and continue to recover over time “.

“The South Australian Labor Government’s commitment to fully support the World Heritage status of the Great Australian Bight so that whales are protected in perpetuity, and to explore the creation of whale protected areas where whales come close to shore with their calves, are important steps in supporting this recovery.”

Project founder Dr Steve Burnell, who started the research in 1991, said the research team was grateful to the Minderoo Foundation for core funding to enable one of the world’s few long-term population studies of large marine mammals to continue.

“The long-term study of the southern right whale is unique and irreplaceable, and the national and international value of continuous data collection over 30-plus years grows every year. This is vital to inform conservation management of this endangered species across Australia’s marine park network, and to understanding the marine ecosystems on which smooth whales depend,” Dr Burnell said.

Yalata Aboriginal Community Chief Executive Officer David White said the southern right whales lived in coastal waters near Far West Coast Aboriginal land.

“The shallow, sandy and sheltered coves along this stretch of coast provide ideal habitat for southern right whales, which migrate to Australian waters between May and November each year to mate, calve, nurse their young, rest and socialize,” said Mr. White. .

Dr Charlton said whales are an indicator species for the health of our marine environment, so research on southern right whales can provide insight into the effects of climate change on endangered marine species and the Southern Ocean.

“As the southern right whale population recovers from near extinction due to commercial whaling, numbers along our coasts are increasing. The number has increased from just 300 in the southern hemisphere to almost 3000 in the Australian population,” Dr Charlton said.

“Research shows that key calving grounds such as the Head of the Great Australian Bight are reaching saturation and numbers are increasing elsewhere, emerging and becoming increasingly important biologically important areas along southern coasts such as Encounter Bay and Sleaford Sound in South Australia , Geographer Bay in Western Australia and Portland in Victoria’.

Researchers from Curtin University, Flinders University, Current Environmental and collaborators are studying aggregation grounds to further research assessing population dynamics, recovery and links between reproduction, health and climate change for southern right whales.

Bridget O’Shaughnessy, head of Current Environmental, said the whales began showing up at their primary calving grounds at the top of the Great Australian Bight in the late 1980s and that southern right whales can be identified by the unique patterns on their heads.

“This season, the research team recorded 75 unique female-calf pairs at Head of Bight, 13 pairs at Fowlers Bay and six pairs at Incanter Bay in recognized South Australian aggregation areas,” Ms O’Shaughnessy said.

“The growing number of whales along our coast provides excellent viewing and eco-tourism. Compared to historical trends, overall numbers in the region are lower than expected for female calf pairs and unaccompanied adults.”

The project contributes to national research priorities in the Commonwealth Conservation Management Plan for the Southern Right Whale and the International Whaling Commission’s Southern Ocean Research objectives.

IMAGE CREDIT: Curtin University


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