Endangered whales found where presumed extinct

May 21st, 2009 - 2:49 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, May 21 (ANI): A team of scientists, using a system of underwater hydrophones that can record sounds from hundreds of miles away, has documented the presence of endangered North Atlantic right whales in an area they were thought to be extinct.

The scientists are from the Oregon State University (OSU) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

According to the researchers, the discovery is particularly important because it is in an area that may be opened to shipping if the melting of polar ice continues, as expected.

The scientists are unsure of exactly how many whales were in the region, which is off the southern tip of Greenland and site of an important 19th-century whaling area called Cape Farewell Ground.

But, they recorded more than 2,000 right whale vocalizations in the region from July through December of 2007.

“The technology has enabled us to identify an important unstudied habitat for endangered right whales and raises the possibility that - contrary to general belief - a remnant of a central or eastern Atlantic stock of right whales still exists and might be viable,” said David Mellinger, an assistant professor at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport and chief scientist of the project.

“We don’t know how many right whales there were in the area,” Mellinger added.

“They aren’t individually distinctive in their vocalizations. But, we did hear right whales at three widely space sites on the same day, so the absolute minimum is three. Even that number is significant because the entire population is estimated to be only 300 to 400 whales,” he further added.

Only two right whales have been sighted in the last 50 years at Cape Farewell Ground, where they had been hunted to near extinction prior to the adoption of protective measures.

According to Mellinger, Right whales produce a variety of sounds, and through careful analysis, these sounds can be distinguished from other whales.

The scientists used recordings of North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales to identify the species’ distinct sounds, including vocalizations known as “up” calls.

Beginning in July of 2007, the scientists recorded a total of 2,012 calls in the North Atlantic off Greenland.

The pattern of recorded calls suggests that the whales moved from the southwest portion of the region in a northeasterly direction in late July, and then returned in September - putting them directly where proposed future shipping lanes would be likely. (ANI)

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