Whales’, dolphins’ ‘human-like’ cultures

This video says about itself:

BBC Planet Earth / Blue Planet – Cetaceans

Some clips of whales and dolphins from the BBC’s phenomenal series. Music is Forgive by Burial.

From the University of Manchester in England:

Whales and dolphins have rich ‘human-like’ cultures and societies

October 16, 2017

Whales and dolphins (Cetaceans) live in tightly-knit social groups, have complex relationships, talk to each other and even have regional dialects — much like human societies.

A major new study, published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution (Monday 16th October), has linked the complexity of Cetacean culture and behaviour to the size of their brains.

The research was a collaboration between scientists at The University of Manchester, The University of British Columbia, Canada, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Stanford University, United States.

The study is first of its kind to create a large dataset of cetacean brain size and social behaviours. The team compiled information on 90 different species of dolphins, whales, and porpoises. It found overwhelming evidence that Cetaceans have sophisticated social and cooperative behaviour traits, similar to many found in human culture.

The study demonstrates that these societal and cultural characteristics are linked with brain size and brain expansion — also known as encephalisation.

The long list of behavioural similarities includes many traits shared with humans and other primates such as:

  • complex alliance relationships — working together for mutual benefit
  • social transfer of hunting techniques — teaching how to hunt and using tools
  • cooperative hunting
  • complex vocalizations, including regional group dialects — ‘talking’ to each other
  • vocal mimicry and ‘signature whistles’ unique to individuals — using ‘name’ recognition
  • interspecific cooperation with humans and other species — working with different species
  • alloparenting — looking after youngsters that aren’t their own
  • social play

Dr Susanne Shultz, an evolutionary biologist in Manchester’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said: “As humans, our ability to socially interact and cultivate relationships has allowed us to colonise almost every ecosystem and environment on the planet. We know whales and dolphins also have exceptionally large and anatomically sophisticated brains and, therefore, have created a similar marine based culture.

“That means the apparent co-evolution of brains, social structure, and behavioural richness of marine mammals provides a unique and striking parallel to the large brains and hyper-sociality of humans and other primates on land. Unfortunately, they won’t ever mimic our great metropolises and technologies because they didn’t evolve opposable thumbs.”

The team used the dataset to test the social brain hypothesis (SBH) and cultural brain hypothesis (CBH). The SBH and CBH are evolutionary theories originally developed to explain large brains in primates and land mammals.

They argue that large brains are an evolutionary response to complex and information-rich social environments. However, this is the first time these hypotheses have been applied to ‘intelligent’ marine mammals on such a large scale.

Dr Michael Muthukrishna, Assistant Professor of Economic Psychology at LSE, added: “This research isn’t just about looking at the intelligence of whales and dolphins, it also has important anthropological ramifications as well. In order to move toward a more general theory of human behaviour, we need to understand what makes humans so different from other animals. And to do this, we need a control group. Compared to primates, cetaceans are a more “alien” control group.”

Dr Kieran Fox, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, added: “Cetaceans have many complex social behaviours that are similar to humans and other primates. They, however, have different brain structures from us, leading some researchers to argue that whales and dolphins could not achieve higher cognitive and social skills. I think our research shows that this is clearly not the case. Instead, a new question emerges: How can very diverse patterns of brain structure in very different species nonetheless give rise to highly similar cognitive and social behaviours?”

The roots of intelligence: What the study of whales and dolphins can reveal about the basis of human intelligence: here.


Beaked whales, new research

This video is called Gervais’ Beaked Whales (Mesoplodon europaeus) off Madeira, Portugal June 5, 2012.

From the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center in the USA:

Scientists eavesdrop on little-known beaked whales to learn how deeply they dive

October 11, 2017

Scientists have reported the first dive depths for Gervais’ and True’s beaked whales, two of the least known beaked whale species known as mesoplodonts. The study is also the first to use a towed linear hydrophone array to document dive depths for beaked whales, and researchers say it’s a promising method to obtain dive depths for other beaked whale species.

The findings by NOAA scientists from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) in Woods Hole, Mass. and a colleague now at Hydroacoustics Inc in Rochester, NY were recently reported in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

“Much of what we know about beaked whales and their dive depths is from two or three species, and from a few locations. We know so little about Gervais’ and True’s beaked whales, but now we know something about how deep they dive and at what depths they are foraging, so this is a step forward,” said Annamaria Izzi DeAngelis, lead author of the study and a marine mammal researcher in the passive acoustics group at the NEFSC.

The linear towed array is made up of a long cable to which a depth sensor and a series of eight hydrophones — underwater microphones — are attached. The array is towed 300 meters, roughly 1,000 feet, behind the NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow to reduce the ship’s noise on the array. It is a passive acoustic approach, meaning the array just listens and doesn’t emit any sounds, while active acoustics such as echosounders (also called fish finders) are devices making noise and then listening for that sound.

Average dive depth for Gervais’ or True’s beaked whales heard in the study was 870 meters (about 2,850 feet, or just over half a mile deep). Researchers also found that the average dive depth of the much better known Cuvier’s beaked whale was 1,158 meters (about 3,800 feet, or more than three quarters of a mile deep). Pre-existing dive depth knowledge about Cuvier’s beaked whales from tagging studies helped the researchers validate their results.

Scientists used acoustic recordings collected over 33 days in July and August 2013 from the Henry B. Bigelow in waters from New Jersey to southern Canada along the continental slope and the floor of the deep sea. The data were gathered as part of an annual survey of marine mammals in the North Atlantic conducted by the NEFSC.

Descriptions of clicks, high frequency sounds made by marine mammals, exist for Northern bottlenose dolphins and for Cuvier’s, Sowerby’s and Blainville’s beaked whales, but next to nothing is known about the remaining North Atlantic beaked whale species, and especially about True’s beaked whales. What little information there is comes from dead stranded animals.

The human ear can’t detect the higher frequency clicks made by beaked whales. “Since we cannot rely on our hearing, we use spectrograms to see the sounds,” DeAngelis explained. A spectrogram provides a visual image of the whales’ frequencies.

“We had two click types, one that we identified as Cuvier’s beaked whale and another that looked similar to Gervais’ but could also be True’s beaked whale,” DeAngelis said. Distinguishing True’s clicks is difficult since nothing is known about them, which led DeAngelis and colleagues to use a Gervais’/True’s category for Mesoplodon clicks.

Beaked whales live in deeper waters offshore, are skittish, and spend little time on the surface, making it difficult to see them to study their behavior. Researchers believe the clicks occur when the whales are foraging, starting at around 400 meters depth (about a quarter-mile deep) and continue as they descend to find food, sometimes down to 3,000 meters (just under two miles deep). Since placing tags on individual animals is time-consuming and difficult to do, passive acoustics — devices that can listen for and record information about sounds the whales make — provide another option.

“When tags that record depth over time are attached to individual animals, we get high resolution dive profiles on a small number of individuals in specific locations. The hydrophone array collects lower resolution information but on a large number of animals all over the world,” DeAngelis said. “Because it is hard to tag beaked whales and towed linear hydrophone arrays are commonly used in marine mammal passive acoustics, this method opens doors to allow more depth and ecological data to be collected on a wider range of beaked whale species.”

Depths of beaked whales were calculated by using the time difference between when a click was first received by the array and the time it took for its surface-reflected echo to also reach the hydrophones. Pamguard, a free open source computer program, provided a two-dimensional position for the clicks, and another code, developed by study co-author Robert Valtierra, extracted the time difference between the direct arrival of the click and the surface-reflected arrival. Combining the 2-D position with the time delay between a click and its surface reflection provided the depth of a foraging beaked whale.

Gervais’ beaked whales (Mesoplodon europaeus), sometimes called the Antillean or Gulf Stream beaked whale, grow 15-17 feet long and weigh about 2,640 pounds. They are usually found alone or in small social groups and feed on squid, shrimp and small fish. They live in the deep warm waters of the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and East Coast of the U.S. south of New England. They are also found in the eastern North Atlantic from the British Isles to western Africa.

True’s beaked whales (Mesoplodon mirus) are medium sized whales that are hard to distinguish from Gervais’ and other beaked whales. They are found in warm temperate waters off the U.S. East Coast and southern Canada, off the British Isles and western Europe, off western Africa and South Africa, and south of Australia. The first underwater footage of a True’s beaked whale was recorded in 2013 off the Azores in the North Atlantic.

Cuvier’s beaked whales (Ziphius cavirostris) are one of the most sighted and studied beaked whales in the world. Sometimes called goose-beaked whales, they can reach lengths of 15-23 feet and weigh 4,000 — 6,800 pounds. Cuvier’s beaked whales live in temperate, subtropical and tropical waters and prefer the deeper waters of the continental slope and areas around steep underwater geologic features like seamounts and submarine canyons.

The study was funded by NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Navy N45 Program, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Data were collected as part of the Atlantic Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species (AMAPPS) program.


Humpback whales’ breath, new research

This 2015 video is called Humpback Whales Blowing & Diving – Four of them.

From Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the USA:

Humpback whale blow microbiome described

Drone collected samples provide new tool for health monitoring

October 10, 2017

A new study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and colleagues identified for the first time an extensive conserved group of bacteria within healthy humpback whales‘ blow — the moist breath that whales spray out of their blowholes when they exhale. The research [was] published Oct. 10, 2017, in mSystems, an open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

The discovery of this shared respiratory “microbiome” could serve as an important framework for monitoring the health of this and other whale species. Just like with humans, scientists say the assemblages of microorganisms that live in and on whales — known as microbiomes — may play a crucial role in their overall health, from maintaining a healthy immune system to fighting off disease.

“The pulmonary system is a common site for bacterial infections in whales,” says WHOI researcher Amy Apprill, lead author of the study. The collaborative research team also included scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), SR3 Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research and the Vancouver Aquarium.

“We see evidence of respiratory illnesses frequently in stranded and deceased animals,” Apprill adds. “Until now, little has been known about the normal respiratory microbiome of healthy whales.”

To collect a sample, traditionally researchers use a small boat to track the whale. Once close enough, they collect a sample by holding a long pole with a large petri dish at its tip, as close to the blowhole as possible. It is an efficient approach, but there’s the potential to change the whale’s behavior and stress level with the boat approach.

The collaborative team wanted a less intrusive way to gather the necessary data for assessing the health of whales in the wild, so they turned to the skies and some high-tech equipment — a custom-made, remotely controlled, six-rotor hexacopter.

After collecting their first sample in Patagonia in early 2015, WHOI biologist Michael Moore, NOAA researcher John Durban and SR3’s Holly Fearnbach were repeatedly successful in using this technique to sample the blows from humpback whales off Cape Cod late that year.

“We were using the drone to take aerial images of the whales, so that we could assess body conditions,” says Durban, a coauthor of the paper. “Because of the stable flight performance of our hexacopter, we quickly learned that we could reliably fly through whale blow without disturbing the animals.”

Once the whale is visible in the frame of the camera that is mounted on the bottom of the hexacopter, high-resolution aerial images are taken for later analysis of body conditions and overall health.

With the help of Fearnbach’s specific positioning directions, which are called out in a rapid pace that would rival that of a veteran auctioneer, Durban pilots the hexacopter several feet above the blowhole. Some of the blow lands on a sterilized petri dish that is attached to the top the drone.

“The whales don’t seem to know the aircraft is there,” says Moore, a coauthor of the paper. “We want to study whale health, but not affect their behavior. The drone helps us do just that.”

Blow samples were collected from two different humpback populations: 17 from whales in coastal waters off Cape Cod, Ma. and nine from whales in waters around Vancouver Island, Canada. The team then sequenced the genetic material found in the blow samples to determine what kinds of microorganisms are living in a whale’s respiratory tract.

“We were surprised to find a microbiome that looked very different from seawater,” Apprill says. “That’s really exciting because it demonstrates that we are obtaining a clear signal of a microbiome that’s coming from the animal.”

Apprill and WHOI laboratory colleague Carolyn Miller identified 25 bacterial groups present in all of the whale samples — a conserved or “core” microbiome.

“This strongly suggests that regardless of where the animal lives, or even their age or sex, they have a shared blow microbiome,” Apprill says.

Within the core group of 25 microbial species, the researchers found 20 sequences similar to microbes associated with other marine mammals. The most shared characteristics were found in a microbiome dataset that came from the blowholes of bottlenose dolphins, which is also the most comparable dataset available at this time.

Next, the researchers will take samples from whales with poor body condition, possibly indicative of illness, to compare microbes found in their blow to that of the healthy whales. They’d also like to expand the sequencing effort to include viruses and fungi, since this study focused solely on bacteria and archaea, single-celled microorganisms similar to bacteria.

“From this study, we have a good idea of what a normal, healthy whale microbiome looks like. Now we need to understand what the microbiome of an unhealthy whale looks like,” Apprill says. “This comparison is critical for health monitoring and disease detection.”

It may also prove to be crucial to the survival of these endangered whales. The past year has been particularly difficult for both humpbacks and North Atlantic right whales. In the past 19 months, at least 53 humpbacks died along the Atlantic coast, prompting NOAA to declare an “unusual mortality event.”

An unusual mortality event has been declared for the North Atlantic right whale as well. At least 15 North Atlantic right whales have died since mid-April in a population that is now fewer than 450.

More than half of right whiles die in collisions with ships or by becoming entangled in fishing gear. In addition, climate change and a warming ocean may be reducing and shifting the location of their main source of food — tiny crustaceans called copepods — leaving some right whales undernourished and less able to reproduce.

“There are very few ways to gather useful data from live large whales at sea,” Moore adds. “This tool has the potential to broaden our perspective of large whale health.”

Humpback whale “super-groups” – A novel low-latitude feeding behaviour of Southern Hemisphere humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the Benguela Upwelling System: here.

Pygmy right whales, new discoveries

This video says about itself:

Walvis Bay, Namibia (14.2.2013) Very few people have ever seen a pygmy right whale. This kind of whale belongs to the smallest whales and can reach about 6 meters in length and 3,500 kg and lives only in the southern hemisphere.

This one was a young female of about 4 meters and 500 kg. Many people were involved in this rescue. Thanks to Antonie Potgieter and colleagues at the saltworks, who stood by until the rest of the rescue-team like Naude Dreyer & Nico Robberts, three tourists (Lionel Husser, Peter Poller and Marc Vogt) from France, Namibia and Switzerland and the Namibian Dolphin Project Team arrived and helped the poor fellow to bring it back to the sea. We will never forget this unbelievable moment in our life.

From Science News:

Ancient whale turns up on wrong side of the world

The rarely seen pygmy right whale may once have cruised northern waters

by Laurel Hamers

12:00pm, October 9, 2017

A new discovery is turning the hemispheric history of a mysterious whale species upside-down. Two fossils recently unearthed in Italy and Japan suggest that a southern whale was briefly a denizen of northern waters more than half a million years ago.

Until now, all available evidence suggested that the pygmy right whale, Caperea marginata, and its ancestors have been steadfast Southern Hemisphere residents for the past 10 million years.

Pygmy right whales are so rarely sighted that scientists know very little about their lifestyle, and the fossil record is sparse, too. The new Northern Hemisphere fossils both closely resemble other confirmed specimens of the whales, researchers report October 9 in Current Biology. The fossils include a fragmented skull with ear bones dating to 0.5 to 0.9 million years ago, and a bone containing parts of the middle and inner ear that’s 1.7 million to 1.9 million years old.

Glaciation near the South Pole during the Pleistocene Ice Age may have temporarily pushed Caperea further north, the researchers propose. Then, as the glaciers melted, the whale migrated south again. Because the new fossils are separated in age by about a million years, it’s hard to say whether the whales crossed the equator multiple times or briefly established a longer-term population in the Northern Hemisphere.

Researchers show that right whales, already an endangered species, may face a dim future: here.

Humpback whale in North Sea, video

This 7 October 2017 video, made from the Maasvlakte near Rotterdam in the Netherlands by Julian & Michiel, shows a humpback whale in the North Sea.

See also here.

Humpback whale rescued, video

This video says about itself:

6 October 2017

When the Blue World team aboard the Live-aboard dive boat Sea Escape encounters a Humpback Whale helplessly entangled in marine debris, they launch a daring rescue operation with the assistance of the Solmar V. This segment follows the adventure of freeing the whale from certain death entangled in fishing line, buoys and kelp!

JONATHAN BIRD’S BLUE WORLD is an Emmy Award-winning underwater science/adventure program.

Hundreds of polar bears eat dead whale

This video about Arctic Siberia says about itself:

Hundreds of Polar Bears Gather to Feast on Whale Carcass

29 September 2017

According to a Wrangel Island news release, at least 230 polar bears gathered on Wrangel Island to gorge on a dead bowhead whale, which washed ashore Sept. 19.

From the Heritage Expeditions blog:

SHO: An unbelievable experience at Wrangel Island

19 September, 2017

I simply don’t know where or how to start this blog .. today has been one of those days I or anybody else with me will never ever forget. You had to live it to believe it, even now there are people pinching themselves to make sure it really happened, but I get ahead of myself.

The day started at 0530 with an early breakfast. We were anchored near Pitchy Bazar on the western coast of Wrangel Island. The Island was coated with a fresh coating of snow, a huge contrast to yesterday’s blue sky and warm weather at the Clark River. The early morning lighting that accompanied the sunrise was surreal. There were several options, ranging from the very easy to the more extreme.

I was on beach patrol with some folk on the easier walk when a young bear wandered our way. He had attitude and he was definitely interested in us. We persuaded him to move on and he lay down about 50 metres away in the snow and watched us. It was a close but incredibly fascinating encounter. Little did we know there were even more incredible things to come. What we saw (and experienced) next will rewrite expedition travel experiences. We were cruising down the coast and saw a “herd” or “convention “ of Polar Bears on/near the beach. There was a dead bowhead whale and we counted over 150 Polar Bears (of all ages, sexes and sizes) that were either feeding or had been feeding on it in the immediate vicinity of the whale. We launched the zodiacs for a closer look and that is the memory we will all carry with us … there are no words to describe it. I share one photo in the hope that it will portray something of our experience.

We leave Wrangel Island tonight on the last leg of this journey.

Rodney Russ – Expedition Leader, Owner and Founder

I had years ago the privilege of being on an expedition with Rodney Russ. Not to the Arctic; to New Zealand subantarctic islands like Campbell island.

The video shows the dead whale had attracted glaucous gulls as well.