We are using innovative new research methods to conserve the North Atlantic right whale. For the first time we can accurately detect pregnancy and sexual maturity in right whales, and conclusively identify whales experiencing high levels of stress from both natural factors and human-activities.
Despite more than 65 years of protection from commercial whaling, the endangered North Atlantic right whale population is not growing. One of the factors impacting recovery of these whales is a significant decline in reproduction over the last decade. Because the known habitat of these whales stretches along the coastline from Florida to Canada, they are exposed to numerous threats resulting from human activities along this urban coastal zone. The objectives of this project are to develop techniques to evaluate the health and reproductive status of right whales and to examine the connections between the health of the coastal environment and the health of right whales.
Studying health and reproduction in right whales was problematic in the past because no methods were available to collect blood samples from large, free-ranging whales, and because stranded animals are so decomposed that the tissues are useless for analysis. We have taken two new approaches to study health and reproduction in right whales. Over the past three years we have developed assays to measure reproductive and adrenal steroid hormones ("stress" hormones) in right whale scat. In order to understand the meaning of hormone levels to right whale health we are analyzing the same hormones in a close relative of the right whale, the Arctic bowhead whale. These techniques have never before been used in free-ranging whales.
We have successfully shown that significant and useful data can be collected from right whale feces, and have developed a novel method for locating and harvesting the feces in the ocean. These, and other results, will increase our understanding of declining reproduction rates in North Atlantic right whales, and will guide our future conservation efforts.
The critically endangered North Atlantic right whale may be the most endangered whale in the world. We are working to conserve this critically endangered whale by reducing the risk of ship strikes, decreasing the threat of fishing gear entanglement and increasing our knowledge of right whale behavior, genetics and population structure.