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Hydrophones ‘hear’ rare right whales

Posted: Friday, Jan 28th, 2011

North Atlantic right whales like these, and their North Pacific cousins - both listed as endangered - are considered the most rare of all large whale species, and among the most rare of all marine mammal species. A Marine Mammal Protection Act research permit was required for scientists to even take this photo. (Photo courtesy of NOAA)

Four years ago, a team of researchers led by David Mellinger from Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) detected the calls of endangered North Atlantic right whales in a former whaling ground the species had abandoned long ago.

No one saw the whales. They heard them, using hydrophones - bioacoustical equipment built by Haru Matsumoto at HMSC.

Mellinger and the others - Phillip Clapham, Robert Dziak, Karolin Klinck, Holger Klinck, and Sharon Niekirk from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies (CIMRS) at HMSC, and Bryndis Brandsdottir of the University of Iceland - published the results of their efforts in this week’s edition of the journal “Biology Letters.” Although they must gather additional genetic and other data, their discovery of a seasonal presence of right whales in an area where they were considered extinct carries potentially significant ramifications in efforts to conserve this dwindling endangered species.

Mellinger, an associate professor and a senior researcher at HMSC, specializes in bioacoustics, most notably whale calls. He said hydrophones allow researchers to listen for whales in remote areas where visual observations are difficult.

Funded by NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, the project began in July 2007 with the deployment of five hydrophones off the Greenland coast. The instruments were calibrated to record ambient sounds below 1,000 hertz - a range that encompasses the frequency of right whale calls - throughout a large section of the North Atlantic Ocean. Right whales produce a variety of sounds and have unique vocalization patterns that allow scientists to differentiate their calls from those of other whales. The underwater recordings weren’t retrieved with the hydrophones until July 2008, and it took months to sift through the tens of thousands of various whale calls, using sophisticated acoustical detection software to separate the right whale calls from others.

Mellinger said they recorded more than 2,000 right whale calls in what’s known as the Cape Farewell Ground, located about 310 miles off the southeastern tip of Greenland, and discovering their presence in the old whaling area is significant in and of itself. Right whales were hunted to near extinction there before the adoption of protective measures. Yet, despite more than 75 years of international protection, northern right whales are considered the most rare of all large whale species, and among the most rare of marine mammal species, with only an estimated 300 to 400 in the North Atlantic, and no more than a few hundred remaining in the North Pacific.

For the complete article see the 01-28-2011 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 01-28-2011 paper.

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