Project Objectives

  • Develop new tools and an integrated approach to study health and reproduction in living right whales
  • Examine the connections between the health of right whales and the health of the urbanized coastal environment where they live


Dr. Rolland takes a sample of a skin

lesion for diagnostic tests from a right

whale named Arpeggio.

Fargo, a Rottweiler trained in scent

detection, helps to locate right whale

scat samples that will be analyzed for

hormones, biotoxins and diseases.

 

Fargo the detection dog meets a right

whale calf up close.

 

Research Overview

Despite protection from commercial whaling since 1935, fewer than 400 North Atlantic right whales survive today. Right whales have been called an “Urban Whale” because they are exposed to numerous threats from human activities in their habitats along the heavily populated coastline from Florida to Canada. Low reproductive rates and signs of poor health suggest that environmental factors are impeding recovery of this highly endangered species.

 

Detection Dogs and Right Whale Conservation

The Right Whale Conservation Medicine Program pioneered the use of scent detection dogs working from boats to locate scat samples from free-swimming right whales. On average, detection dogs find four times more samples compared to researchers, and they are capable of detecting right whale scat from over one nautical mile away. The scat samples are used for an array of tests to study reproduction and health of individual right whales and to follow trends in the population.

Hormone Levels and Right Whale Health

Obtaining blood samples from a 40-50 ton whale is not feasible, so this project developed assays to measure the metabolites of reproductive and stress hormones in right whale scat. Levels of these hormone metabolites provide important clues to understanding the reasons behind low reproductive rates and to evaluate stress in right whales. This is the first time that these techniques have been used to measure hormones in a living whale.

Findings include:

  • Detection of pregnancy, pregnancy loss, and lactation in females and sexual maturity in males
  • Identification of right whales experiencing high levels of stress, such as those entangled in fishing gear

Biotoxins and Disease

This project assesses the impacts of marine biotoxins (“red tide” toxins) and disease-causing organisms on right whale health. Levels of paralytic shellfish poisoning toxins (red tide) and domoic acid are being measured in right whale scat and in their zooplankton prey. We are also studying the prevalence of disease-causing protozoa in right whales and determining whether these organisms are from land-based sources.

Findings include:

  • Right whales are regularly exposed through the food web to two marine biotoxins that may be impacting their health.
  • Potentially pathogenic protozoa occur at very high rates in whale scat, and may be affecting overall health.

Visual Health Assessment

New England Aquarium researchers developed a method to use photographs to visually assess large whale health. More than 200,000 photographs of right whales have been analyzed and scored for four physical parameters that reflect body condition and general health. Results are being integrated with females’ calving histories to study associations between health changes and reproductive success. This novel approach forms the foundation of a monitoring system to follow the trends in the health of whales over time and in response to environmental changes like climate change.

Findings include:

  • This method can detect significant changes in a whale’s body condition associated with reproduction, poor health and environmental factors.
  • Health assessment scores help to predict mortality in right whales that are struck by ships, entangled in fishing gear or simply disappear from the population.
  • Deteriorating body and skin condition of right whales in the 1990s coincided with plummeting calving rates, suggesting a relationship that is being investigated further.
  • Health assessment scores of whales entangled in fishing gear are used to assess the whale’s condition and determine the urgency of intervention.

Related Projects

Learn more about the Marine Stress Research Program and Sea Turtle Conservation and Research.