As the oceans’ largest creatures, whales hold a certain fascination for marine biologists. Between their intelligence, enchanting calls of communication across the water and sheer size, whales are viewed as a species worth studying and worth protecting. Researchers at Oregon State University in particular want to learn more. Thanks to a recent grant from the US Navy, scientists at Oregon State University have been tagging blue whales and fin whales off the coast of southern California this summer to learn more about their movements, especially around feeding grounds where ship traffic frequently passes through.
“No one wants to see whales hit by ships, and it is clear from the analysis that there has been some historic overlap of blue whale feeding areas and shipping lanes,” said Bruce Mate, researcher at Oregon State University and director of the university’s Marine Mammal Institute. “The goal of the new Navy-funded project is to better understand the seasonal occurrence of blue and fin whales in southern California and determine if that overlap is still taking place for these protected species.”
This study will build upon previous marine biology research at Oregon State that showed, thanks to satellite tracking of 171 blue whales between 1993 to 2008, a seasonal presence of whales near established shipping lanes close to Santa Barbara. The findings were published last month in the journal PLOS ONE. In response to this study, six major shipping companies volunteered to slow down the speed of their ships when passing near Santa Barbara in order to diminish the risk of hitting an endangered whale and reduce pollution in that area.
Blue whale off the coast of California
Image courtesy of Dan Shapiro and NOAA Photo Library on Flickr
The US Navy has a Marine Mammals and Biology Program that supports research such as this new study by scientists at Oregon State University. Some of the most prominent marine biology research funded by the US Navy includes monitoring and detection; models and databases for integrating well within marine environments; ecosystem research using sensors and tags; and the effects of sound on marine life, including behavioral response, hearing, diving physiology, the effects of sound disturbances on populations, and physiological stress responses.
The researchers at Oregon State hope to learn whether the shipping lanes off the coast of Southern California are a seasonal feeding ground for blue whales and fin whales. So far, they have successfully tagged 21 whales.
“The main areas that attract blue whales are highly productive, strong upwelling zones that produce large amounts of krill – which is pretty much all that they eat,” said Ladd Irvine, a scientist at Oregon State who also served as lead author on the PLOS ONE study. “The whales have to maximize their food intake during the summer before they migrate south for the winter, typically starting in mid-October to mid-November. It appears that two of their main foraging areas are coincidentally crossed by shipping lanes.”
Funding for marine biology research at Oregon State is as prominent as grants within other life science fields at the university. Researchers at Oregon State University recently received a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in addition to being funded for this study. So far in 2014, the NIH has given Oregon State $11.1 million in funding, while the NSF gave the university $33.4 million in 2013.
If your lab supply company targets life science professionals on the West Coast, you will have the opportunity to bring up this exciting study with marine biology researchers and other life science researchers at Oregon State when you exhibit at the upcoming BioResearch Product Faire™ Event at Oregon State University on September 10th, 2014.
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