Research Publication

Cryptic mortality of North Atlantic right whales

By Richard M. Pace III, Rob Williams, Scott D. Kraus, Amy R. Knowlton, Heather M. Pettis

Originally published in Conservation Science and Practice in February 2021



Evaluations of the conservation status of the endangered North Atlantic right whale as well as many other wildlife species often rely extensively on counts and cause-of-death determinations of carcasses found accidentally or during dedicated surveys. Even when survey effort dedicated to a population is extensive, many deaths may go unseen. We used an abundance estimation model to derive estimates of cryptic mortality for North Atlantic right whales and found that observed carcasses accounted for only 36% of all estimated death during 1990–2017. We found strong evidence that total mortality varied over time, and that observed carcass counts were poor predictors of estimated annual numbers of whales dying. Importantly, there were substantial differences between fractions of deaths determined to be entanglement related during necropsy (49%) and the fraction of cryptic deaths suffering serious injuries related to entanglement (87%). Although we concluded that a single year’s observations produced poor estimates of carcass detection rates due to the volatility of ratios of small counts, ratio estimates of data pooled over periods of consistent survey may offer better information on detection rates. Additionally, it appears unwise to consider cause of death determinations from detected carcasses as representative of cause-specific mortality rates in right whales given the large number of seriously injured whales from entanglement that are likely part of the unseen mortality.

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Affiliated Authors
  • Scott Kraus

    Scott Kraus, PhD, Emeritus Scientist, Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life

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  • Amy Knowlton

    Amy Knowlton, Senior Scientist, Kraus Marine Mammal Conservation Program, Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life

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  • Heather Pettis

    Heather Pettis, Research Scientist, Kraus Marine Mammal Conservation Program, Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life

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