Whales teach calves where to look for food

February 9th, 2009 - 4:50 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Feb 9 (IANS) Young “right whales” learn from their mothers where to eat, prompting concerns among biologists about their ability to find new places to feed if changing climate disrupts their traditional dining areas.

“A primary concern is, what are whales going to do with global warming, which may change the location and abundance of their prey?” asked Vicky Rowntree, research associate professor of biology and a co-author of the new study at Utah University.

“Can they adapt if they learn from their mother where to feed - or will they die?”

Previous research by Rowntree and colleagues showed that when climate oscillations increase sea temperatures, southern right whales give birth to fewer calves because the warm water reduces the abundance of krill, which are small, shrimp-like crustaceans eaten by the whales.

The new study - used genetic and chemical isotope evidence to show that mothers teach their calves where to go for food.

“Southern right whales consume enormous amounts of food and have to travel vast distances to find adequate amounts of small prey,” says study co-author Jon Seger, professor of biology, University of Utah. “This study shows that mothers teach their babies in the first year of life where to go to feed in the immensity of the ocean.”

The study tracked how whales are related by analysing maternal DNA, and then compared that with dietary information obtained by characterizing different forms or isotopes of chemical elements in their skin, said an Utah release.

The two techniques - which the researchers say they used together for the first time - allowed the scientists to determine that whale mothers, their offspring and other extended family members eat in the same place.

The report is scheduled for publication in Feb 15 issue of Molecular Ecology.

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