New Whale Species, and New Ways to Study Them All

Feb 8, 2016

In just a few decades, we’ve gone from hunting whales to protecting them. But many are still endangered, and they face a barrage of potential threats. Now, researchers are developing new ways to study these animals, from facial recognition software to help track whales’ movements, and using baleen to trace the history of stress in whales’ lives.

1. Facial Recognition for Whales: There are only about five hundred North Atlantic right whales in existence. Christin Khan, a research fishery biologist (a.k.a. whale spotter) at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, spends a lot of her time photographing whales so that the health and movements of each individual can be closely tracked. But actually identifying the whale(s) in a photograph can be time-consuming and frustrating. Khan found herself wondering if it was a job a computer could do for her.
“It started with this idea that this technology is becoming more and more prevalent,” she said.
“We thought, how great would it be if we could apply this technology to right whales?”

Last August, Khan launched a competition to develop the equivalent of facial recognition software for right whales. The winning algorithm correctly identified eighty-seven percent of the whales on which it was tested, but not using their faces, exactly. Rather, it recognizes the colosity patterns on right whales' heads, which is the pattern of rough, white skin that forms on right whales as they reach adulthood.

2. Finding Omura's Whale: If picking the right right whale out of a line-up sounds like a challenge, imagine trying to identify a whole new species of whale. That's the challenge that Sal Cerchio, of the New England Aquarium and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and his team of Malagasi collaborators faced a few years ago. During a survey of marine mammals off the northwest coast of Madagascar, the group encountered whales that looked a lot like Bryde's (pronounced brudus) whales, except that they had distinctive, assymetric coloring on their heads - a feature only found in distantly related fin whales. They eventually figured out that what they were seeing were rare, poorly described Omura's whales. They've since captured video and audio recordings of the whales.

3. A Lifetime of Stress: Whether it’s endangered North Atlantic right whales or newly discovered Omura’s whales, many marine mammals literally face a fight to the death on a regular basis. Ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, chemical pollutants, and climate change are some of the top threats facing whales. It sounds pretty stressful, but do whales even feel stress? And, if so, what does it do to their health and their species' chance of survival? Those are the questions that Kathleen Hunt, a research scientist with the New England Aquarium’s Marine Stress Research Program, is trying to answer. And she's turning to some unusual sources for data: whale breath, whale feces, and now, baleen. Baleen is analogous to human hair, and offers a long-term record of stress (and also pregnancies). It's also a lot less messy than the alternatives. Unfortunately, though, it can only be obtained after a whale has died.