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.
New Methodologies in Data Collection
With the help of some specially trained dogs, our right whale researchers have collected hundreds of samples of whale feces since 2003. Laboratory tests performed on whale poop can reveal stress levels, parasites, illness and whether the whale had been exposed to biotoxins associated with red tides. We also run laboratory tests to determine whether a whale is sexually mature and if females are pregnant or nursing. This methodology has already been replicated by non-Aquarium researchers working with other animals.
Insight into Declining Reproduction
For the first time we can accurately detect pregnancy and the age of sexual maturity in right whales for the first time and can conclusively identify whales experiencing high levels of stress from both natural factors and human-activities. Using this method we hope to understand the causes of poor reproduction in right whales.
Developing A Visual Health Assessment
We have developed a visual assessment methodology which allows us to determine the relative health status for right whales through visual analysis of photographs in the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog. This novel approach allows us to establish baseline health conditions of whales and to subsequently track individual and population health over time. These findings can also be integrated to establish correlations between health and population demographics.
Preliminary results suggest that we may be able to use visual observation and photographs to determine the potential reproduction success for individual female right whales.
For example, female right whales have shown a visible deterioration of skin and body condition over the past decade. This decline in visible physical health is strongly correlated with a decrease in the calving rate over the same time.