Kelly Dilliard: Right Whale Genetics, May 24, 2015


NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kelly Dilliard
Onboard NOAA Ship Gordon Gunter

May 15 – June 5, 2015

Mission: Right Whale Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Northeast Atlantic Ocean
Date: May 24, 2015

Weather Data from the Bridge:
Air Pressure:  1025.57 mb
Air Temperature: 16.7 degrees C
Relative Humidity: 55%
Wind Speed:  23 knots
Wind Direction:  244 degrees

Science and Technology Log:

In the last blog post, I wrote about how right whales are photo-identified.  Today we will look into what researchers do with this information and other information that are gathered on right whales including lineages of specific individuals.  It really is amazing how much information has been gathered about the right whale population off the New England coast.  They have been collecting data on these whales for the past 25 years.  It goes to show that persistence pays off.

Right whales are also identified by genetics and can be used to develop right whale family trees.  Scientists use a dart shot from a crossbow to collect a small sample of skin, flesh, and blubber.  These are then sent to the Natural Resources DNA Profiling and Forensic Centre in Canada for DNA extraction.  The data is then stored in the North Atlantic Right Whale DNA Bank at Trent University and made available as an online database.  The database contains information on over 500 individuals and provides a means of studying the right whale population, keeping track of deceased individuals and paternity.  DNA provides the only means of determining a calf’s father.  The DNA database currently contains 105 paternity results (this link takes you to the list of father-mother-calf connections).

On our cruise we have been able to photo-identify a few right whales so far.  You can learn more about each of these whales by looking them up in the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, including callosity patterns, images and sightings. Two of the whales were with calves, Wolf and 1950, and two were not, Couplet and 3890.   As you can see, some whales have been named and some have not.  Wolf was born in 1987 to mom, Moon, and father, 1516.  She had a previous calf, Caterpillar, with Thorny in 2005.  1950 had a previous calf, Haley, in 1997 with Legs.  Couplet is an interesting one and warrants further examination.  3890 is not yet in the paternity database.  Females tend to breed every 3-4 years and they first give birth at age nine or ten.

Wolf

Image of Wolf taken by a NOAA aerial survey in 2010. Photo from the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog.

Couplet was born in 1991 to Sonnet (mother) and Dingle (father).  Couplet has two other siblings, 3123 born in 2001 and 3423 born in 2004.   Couplet had a calf herself in 2003 with Velcro and another calf in 2001.  Couplet’s mom, Sonnet, was born in 1981 to Kleenex (mother) and 1050 (father).  Her grandmother, Kleenex, has had seven calves, with Sonnet being the second oldest.  Kleenex has been well studied and is thought to be the most productive female.  From Kleenex’s and Couplet’s family tree you can see that right whales interbreed.  Kleenex and Dingle had a calf, Echo, in 1996, an “aunt” of Couplet’s.  Couplet is a calf of Dingle as well.  You can read more about Kleenex in her biography.

Right whale 1950 spotted on Wednesday, May 20th with a calf.  Identified by Corey Accardo.

Right whale 1950 spotted on Wednesday, May 20th with a calf (the calf is not in this photo). Identified by Corey Accardo.  Images collected under MMPA research permit #17355.  Photo credit NOAA/NEFSC/KAD.

North Atlantic right whales travel up and down the eastern seaboard ranging from Florida to Canada.  Florida and the southeastern United States is the calving grounds for right whales.  The calving season is from December to March.  During this time there is no feeding going on.  This may be due to the lack of available food.  The right whales then migrate north for the summer and fall months to Cape Cod Bay (1 on the map), the Great South Channel (where we are currently, 2 on the map), the Bay of Fundy (3 on the map), and Roseway Basin/Browns Bank (4 on the map).  They move between the different areas for feeding and nursing, with the population distribution based almost solely on food availability.  Some individuals have been known to winter in Jordan Basin and Cashes Ledge in the central Gulf of Maine.  Jordan Basin, in particular, is a suspected breeding ground for the North Atlantic right whale.

  
Maps of the southeastern and northeastern seaboards with North Atlantic Right Whale habitats denoted.

Personal Log:

It has been a few days since I was able to write a blog partly due to weather and partly due to science activity.  On Friday the two small boats on the ship were deployed to tag and photo-identify a right whale that was spotted around 10 am from the fly bridge.  The boats are deployed via a crane that picks up the RHIBs (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat) and puts it off the port side of the boat.  The scientists then crawl down a Jacobs ladder (rope ladder with steps) to get into the small boat.  While several of the scientists were out in the boat chasing the right whale, the rest of us were up on the fly bridge following the whale and directing the small boats to its location.  This was especially challenging because the right whale would only surface for a very short time period and then dive down for up to 20 minutes.  Through all of this there were hundreds of seals swimming off the bow, humpback whales feeding, and tons of birds.  Pete, the chief scientist, also saw yellow fin tuna within the “sea” of seals.   I was able to capture lots of images with my telephoto lens and with my GoPro.  I will post a few below.

Small boats looking for the elusive right whale.

Small boats looking for the elusive right whale.   Images collected under MMPA research permit #17355.  Photo credit NOAA/NEFSC/KAD.

The small boat from WHOI trying to tag our elusive right whale (tale).

The small boat from WHOI trying to tag our elusive right whale (tale).  Images collected under MMPA research permit #17355.  Photo credit NOAA/NEFSC/KAD.

On Saturday, we were in high seas due to sustained winds over 25 knots.  The choppy sea made it very difficult to spot whales due to all of the white water.  I especially was not on the Big Eyes do to the choppy seas.  Mark Baumgartner from WHOI (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute) and his team were deploying the CTD at specific points along our track line.  The plan is to continue CTD work on Monday and Tuesday.  I also plan to write my next blog post about the CTD.  We are expected to have high seas and wind again.

Humpback whale feeding.  You can see the white baleen in her mouth.  This photo was taken with a telephoto lens and then cropped.

Humpback whale feeding. This photo was taken with a telephoto lens and then cropped.  Images collected under MMPA research permit #17355.  Photo credit NOAA/NEFSC/KAD.

Humpback whale feeding. You can see the white baleen in her mouth. This photo was taken with a telephoto lens and then cropped.

Humpback whale feeding. You can see the white baleen in her mouth. This photo was taken with a telephoto lens and then cropped.  Images collected under MMPA research permit #71355.  Photo credit NOAA/NEFSC/KAD.

Humpback

Humpback whale splash after breaching. I missed seeing (and photographing) the breach, but caught the large splash next to the ship.  Images collected under MMPA research permit #17355.  Photo credit NOAA/NEFSC/KAD.

"Sea" of seals off the starboard side.  Photo taken Friday the 21st.

“Sea of seals” off the starboard side. Photo taken Friday the 21st.  Images collected under MMPA research permit #17355.  Photo credit NOAA/NEFSC/KAD.

Seal off the port side of the ship.  Probably was once part of the above "sea of seals".

Seal off the port side of the ship. Probably was once part of the above “sea of seals”.  Images collected under MMPA research permit #17355.  Photo credit NOAA/NEFSC/KAD

 

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