Monday, March 30, 2009

A Trip to NOAA

Top of an orca skull viewed upside-down.

Last week, on a work-related trip, I got to see inside NOAA's National Marine Mammal Labs (NMML) in Seattle with resident researcher Jim Thomason as the wonderful tour guide.

The first areas Jim showed me were the tooth lab, scat lab (which smelled delicious), and collections of otoliths (fish ears) and cephalopod (octopus and squid) beaks from the scat of northern fur seals.

From there we went to the osteological collection and looked at a juvenile gray whale confiscated from a Hood Canal resident who didn't have permits. The next room was full of orca skulls, ribs as tall as Arvydas Sabonis -- who is 7'3" -- beaked whale skulls, and other cetacean miscellany. Many of the orca skulls were from the orcas captured in Puget Sound in the 1960s and 70s. Wow, there's some orca history to never forget.

Most of the shelves on the left held orca skulls.

Once I got over my fascination of the shelves of orca skulls, I saw a skull from one of my favorite whales -- a male strap toothed whale! These whales are so cool; the males have these two teeth -- almost two and a half inches in width -- that grow over their rostrum in old age, limiting the amount they can open their mouths. As a result, these whales have learned to use suction to get at their food.

Mandible of a strap-toothed whale.

On the other side of the collection we looked at skulls of polar bears, walrus, and crabeater seals -- which have these amazing plankton-sifting, prehistoric-looking teeth.

Wouldn't you love to have some teeth like these?

All in all it was a great trip to a place I never thought I would see. If you had told a 10-year-old me that I would one day see such a collection, I'm fairly certain I would have dropped dead on the spot. Jim was a fantastic tour guide, and I hope to be able to visit again.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Are We Listening?

The bioacoustics research program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a snazzy site that's all about listening for right whales in an effort to protect them from ship strikes. Once the buoys detect the sound of a whale -- including rights, humpacks and fins -- the recordings get sent back to Cornell where software and researchers identify the sound. If the sound is indeed a whale, ships in the area are notified and encouraged to slow their speed to avoid an unfortunate situation.

It's important for us to listen to the whales, especially if it helps us to understand them and avoid unnecessary injury and/or death. It's too bad, then, that this project is facing a budget shortfall and has had to pull the buoys that record the sounds. Hopefully this is not the end of the program. Only time will tell if the future will bring additional funding.

I wonder if we will see an increase in ship strikes now that the buoys have been lifted?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Blue Whales Don't Play Games

But you can! National Geographic's new special, Kingdom of the Blue Whale, comes with several online interactive components. One of which is a game called Finding the Blue Whale, in which the player tags and tracks blue whales along their migration route. Another component is an in-depth exploration of these magnificent creatures. Compare the size and weight of a blue whale with other well known large objects, such as a space shuttle or the great T. Rex, discover the unique anatomical traits and behaviors, and learn about the threats facing blue whales. All in all, an extremely well done website for a deserving topic of study.

Hopefully the show will come out on DVD soon so that those without TV (i.e.; me and others out there) can check out this apparently awesome -- or so I've heard -- NatGeo special!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Another Stranding in Tasmania

What is it about the waters around Tasmania that makes it so easy for pilot whales to strand? Whatever it is, it's been happening more and more in the recent months as the long-finned pilot whales migrate between Antarctic waters.

The latest stranding included nearly 200 animals on Naracoopa Beach on King Island in Tasmania. Most of the animals were pilot whales, but a few were bottlenose dolphins. Apparently, bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales often travel together. The two species have overlapping frequency ranges (pilot whales = 1 - 8 kHz, bottlenose dolphins = 0.2 - 160 kHz [pdf]), so it's possible that they could be communicating or even hunting together. It's not common for dolphins to strand, so they may have been reacting with the pilot whales.

As far as I've seen, none of the articles about the King Island stranding spotlight any cause, but most mention that Navy sonar can have an effect on whales in the area. My question is, have there been any sonar activities going on around King Island within the last few months? This seems to signal an increase in strandings, but the articles don't mention any use of sonar nearby.

Alternately, Dr. Vincent Janik, of the Sea Mammal Research Unit of St. Andrews University, has some ideas about fish abundance that may have had some effect, which is definitely worth looking into. Also, the Herald Sun has a slideshow of the volunteer efforts here. It will definitely be interesting to see what, if anything, comes out of all the recent strandings.