Local scientists adapting tactics to study the health of endangered right whales – Boston 25 News

BOSTON — Scientists from the New England Aquarium are adjusting how they study the North Atlantic right whale. For years, researchers have relied on aerial surveys of the endangered species.

Now, for the first time ever, researchers from the NEAQ are surveying the waters of southern New England by boat in addition to aerial surveys to better understand how critical whales are seeking using the local habitat amid climate change.

“Climate change requires us to adapt our research study areas just as the whales have changed their feeding areas,” said Philip Hamilton, Senior Scientist in the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life. “There is an exciting sense of discovery surveying a new area and learning about right whales’ behavior there”. After all these years, we still have much to learn about the species.”

From mid-January to early March, researchers spent a total of four days on the water approximately 70 miles south of Nantucket, searching for right whales.

The work focused on capturing detailed lateral photographs which will be used to assess the health and scarring of the animals, as well as collecting tissue and fecal samples to analyze the whales’ reproductive status and stress level.

“Concentrating boat-based fieldwork in southern New England is a direct response to climate change,” according to a statement from the NEAQ.

In the past 12 years, the area has become an important habitat for the species as climate change has led to a shift in where right whales feed off the northeast US and Canada, according to the NEAQ. There has been very little boat-based right whale research in southern New England and none in the winter months.

During fieldwork on January 24, January 27, March 1, and March 5, researchers sighted 17 individual right whales by boat or 5% of the population which is estimated to be less than 350. In total, the Aquarium teams identified 21 unique right whales from either the air or the water.

“Our aerial survey plane flew several tracklines covering a large area south of Nantucket where our vessel team was planning to survey. We were then able to send the locations of our right whale sightings to the vessel to help direct their efforts,” said Katherine McKenna, a Research Assistant in the Aquarium’s Spatial Ecology, Mapping, and Assessment Program. “The New England Aquarium conducts monthly aerial surveys south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, so we were excited to have an opportunity to overlap with the vessel surveys this month and provide support to our right whale research team.”

“Winter weather is very dynamic and hard to predict. Not only were we looking for nice weather at sea, but we also had to plan around snow storms so that our team could travel to and from the boat safely,” said Research Assistant Amy Warren of the Aquarium, who managed logistics for the March field work. “The southern New England area is quite large, and given how spread out the whales tend to be, it can feel very needle-in-a-haystack.”

“Aside from their many entanglement scars, overall, the whales sighted looked healthy with clean, black skin and good body condition,” according to the NEAQ statement.

“This inaugural field work was a learning experience for all of us. The days are long and exhausting, the weather conditions are unpredictable, and we did it amid the challenges presented by COVID. I can’t imagine how much harder it all might have been without any aerial support, so we are grateful to have such a strong partnership in this research,” said Associate Scientist Monica Zani, who oversaw the Aquarium’s field work in late January.

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