Right Whale Die-Off Continues to Puzzle
G. Harris/Wildlife Conservation Society
A mother and calf pair of southern right whales in the waters of coastal Patagonia.
Originally designed to live on land, marine mammals are a diverse, charismatic group of animals that include more than 120 species. The animals share key characteristics of land mammals. They have hair, breathe air, give birth to live young, which feed off mother's milk when young. They have warm bodies and usually thick blubber to keep their body temperatures high. The bottlenose dolphin is probably the most widely recognized marine mammal, easily spotted just offshore from beaches around the world. Small groups of 20 or less can live in close proximity to shorelines, but groups living more offshore can reach several hundred. Bottlenose dolphin calves stay with their mothers for up to six years, learning how to hunt and become good dolphin citizens. Full-grown dolphins reach eight to 12 feet in length and can weigh up to 1,430 pounds. The bottlenose dolphin is protected in U.S. waters.
What makes them "marine" depends on the animal. They either live mostly in the sea or, like polar bears, depend on the ocean for food. The largest in the group are whales -- including humpback whales. These massive animals reach up to 50 feet in length and weigh up to 79,000 pounds. To maintain their weight, the animals feed on tons of krill and fish. They neared extinction due to whaling, but have recovered somewhat since a 1966 moratorium on whaling was introduced.
While polar bears live mostly on land or ice, they are excellent swimmers and have been known to swim up to 45 miles a day. The massive animals, weighing up to 1,500 pounds, hunt mostly seals. In recent years, biologists have observed that the bears are swimming now more than ever as melting stretches the distances between Arctic ice flows. Because they depend on sea ice to hunt seals, the polar bear is considered threatened as global warming melts and thins ice in this region.
This member of the weasel family is also the smallest marine mammal, with females weighing about 60 pounds and males weighing up to 90 pounds. They may be small, but they're also clever. They're the only marine mammals known to use tools. They use stones to break open clams and store food they gather in the folds of their armpits! Another feature that sets them apart is their lack of blubber. These marine mammals depend mostly on their fur to stay warm. That feature makes them particularly vulnerable to oil spills, which can compromise their fur's insulating effect.
Immediately recognizable by its long tusks and whiskers, the sea walrus is a hefty, flippered member of the Odobenidae family and is, in fact, the last living member of this group. Since both the males and females have big tusks and not much for teeth, the animals feed by sucking up shellfish from the ocean floor. So, just what are those tusks for? The longer they are (they grow to be up to four feet long in males), the higher an animal is ranked in the group. Males attack each other with their tusks to establish dominance. The ivory appendages are also handy for poking holes in the winter ice and for helping the animals pull themselves out of the water.
Manatees, also known as sea cows, are gentle herbivores that live in marshy areas in tropical and subtropical waters. The average adult manatee can weigh up 1,200 pounds and is around 10 feet long. Because of their slow metabolism, these animals can only survive in warm waters. Due to the unusually long, cold winter this year in part of the southeastern United States, populations of manatees throughout Florida were devastated. During the day, manatees usually like to stay close to the surface. At night, manatees will often sleep about three to 10 feet below sea level. This is why these gentle animals are so often accidentally injured, maimed or killed by passing boats.
Found up and down the North American coastlines, these marine mammals spend half of their lives swimming. Although they can reach up to six feet in length and weigh around 180 pounds, when on land and in plain sight harbor seals may not be easy to spot. Their spotted brown or tan fur allows harbor seals to blend in with sand and rocks. Unlike their very vocal relatives -- sea lions and elephant seals -- harbor seals are quiet creatures that make little noise. They like to hang out on beaches, sand bars and rocks during low tide to bask in the sun and sleep, but they never go far from the water. At the slightest sign of danger, they will quickly slip back under the waves. These expert swimmers have been known to plunge to depths of more than 1,600 feet and stay underwater up to 28 minutes.
Scientists still don't know why hundreds of baby southern right whales are turning up dead around Patagonia, a decade after observers first saw signs of the worst die-off on record for the species, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
With no evidence of infectious diseases or deadly toxins in whale tissue samples, scientists are scrambling to determine a cause of death. Some are even pointing a finger at blubber-eating birds.
The whales come to the peaceful Atlantic bays around Peninsula Valdes along Argentina's Patagonian Coast to give birth and raise their young. At least 605 dead right whales have been counted in the region since 2003, WCS officials say. Of those, 538 were newborn calves. Last year, the mortality event was especially severe, with a record-breaking 116 whale deaths, 113 of them calves. [Whale Album: Giants of the Deep]
"In 2012 we lost nearly one-third of all calves born at the Peninsula," said Mariano Sironi, scientific director of the Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas in Argentina. "Southern right whales have their first calf when they are nine years old on average. This means that it won't be until a decade from now that we will see a significant reduction in the number of calves born, as all of the female calves that died will not be contributing any new offspring to the population," Sironi, who is also an advisor to the Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program, added in a statement.
Sironi and colleague Vicky Rowntree, who is co-director of the monitoring program, have studied a strange phenomena that could be stressing southern right whales. They say kelp gulls at Peninsula Valdes land on the backs of the cetaceans to eat their skin and blubber.
"The attacks are very painful and cause large, deep lesions, particularly on the backs of young 2-6 week-old calves," the researchers said in a statement from WCS. "This harassment can last for hours at a time. As a result, right whale mothers and their calves are expending much precious energy during a time of year when mothers are fasting and at a site where little to no food is available to replenish fat reserves."
The situation is discouraging for a species that had made a significant comeback since its population was depleted by the whaling industry.
"The southern right whale population is still only a small fraction of its original size, and now we have reason to worry about its recovery," Rowntree said.
Though the southern right whale is not listed as endangered, conservationists warn that the species' sister populations could go extinct if hit with a mysterious die-off on this scale. For instance, there are thought to be just about 500 North Atlantic right whales remaining.
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