New Tracking Data, Important Insights, and New Questions in Whale Mystery

November 28, 2017

Photo Credit: Julie Larsen Maher © WCS

Scientists tracking Southern right whale behavior in the waters off South America say their latest findings provide novel insights and raise new questions, but still a major marine mystery remains unsolved, at least for now.

The researchers, who began tracking these large whales via satellite in 2014, say today that they've found the animals take a variety of routes and may use at least three separate feeding areas—more habitats in the wider region than previously believed.

Scientists recorded a startling 672 deaths over ten years, including mostly young calves. For more than a decade, an international team, including researchers from WCS, have been trying to figure out why this has happened.

A number of different hypotheses have been put forward, including disease, certain types of contaminants, and something potentially associated with their feeding grounds—and thus the effort by WCS and colleagues to determine where migratory destinations once they leave Patagonia. Additionally, harassment and wounding by kelp gulls, a frequent occurrence in Península Valdés, Argentina, where the deaths have been observed is also not helping the whales.

In order to evaluate the theories, the research team has sought to gain a clearer picture of Southern right whale movements to determine where they go once they leave Patagonia. In part, this has meant deploying satellite tags to track the animals' movements. This year, eight tags were deployed bringing the overall total to 21. You can see some of the whales' recorded routes summarized below and broken down by year.

Partners in this effort include NOAA, Institute Aqualie, ESCM-UNC y CENPAT/CONICET, FPN, ICB Ocean Alliance, and UC Davis.

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