Marine biology researchers have recently mapped the density of one of the most endangered whale species in the entire world: the North Atlantic right whale. The researchers used newly analyzed data to help predict and avoid whales’ harmful, and sometimes fatal, exposure to commercial fishermen and vessel strikes.

At Duke University, the Marine Geospatial Ecology lab led a group of 11 institutions in the United States that gather 17 years of visual survey data that covers 9.7 million square kilometers of the Atlantic Ocean. The information that was gathered was put together with data from around 500 hydrophone recorders in Atlantic Ocean waters that recorded whales’ calls.

Researchers created a statistical model to calculate the number of whales per square kilometer at different locations in time. The researchers did this by lining up visual and acoustic datasets. The director of Duke’s Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab, Patrick Halpin, states that “The more accurate and detailed the mapping, the better chance we have to save dwindling numbers of right whales from preventable injury and fatality.”

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This laboratory focuses on studying marine ecology, resource management, and ocean conservation. They achieve this by utilizing data to inform ocean management and governance decisions.

Current efforts to track and protect whales from harmful encounters with human activities have been incomplete or ineffective. Electronic tagging, a method used for monitoring, can be detrimental to whale health. Additionally, it is not practical to continuously monitor more than a small portion of the whale population using this method.

A statistical model, revised from a 2016 version, predicts whale density based on environmental factors such as sea surface temperature. The updated model incorporates new data on whale migration and feeding patterns, including their presence in unprotected areas.

Jason Roberts, a Duke research associate and the study’s lead author, noted, “With nearly three times more aerial survey data than before, and supporting evidence from hydrophones, we were able to demonstrate how significantly the population has shifted its distribution.”

Right whales play a crucial role in maintaining the health and balance of marine environments and the entire food web through their feeding habits. However, as climate change affects the population of their prey, whale migration patterns have become more unpredictable. This increases the risk of harm to whales from activities such as commercial fishing, impacting their health and reproductive success.

Researchers can now more accurately predict whale density along the U.S. East Coast using maps obtained from satellite ocean monitoring or physical ocean models like the recently published one.

In AP Biology, we previously learned about ecology. We recently came back from the Bronx Zoo and saw how many animals on our planet are endangered. The scientists in this article use ecological data to understand and protect endangered species. This article relates to the population of an organisms. The article examines the factors that affect the abundance and distribution of the right whale.

It is incredible to really think about how researchers are combining visual survey data and acoustic recordings to estimate the number of whales in a given area. This kind of mapping not only helps us understand the whales’ behavior and migration patterns but also plays a crucial role in their conversation. I would love to hear what you think. Do you think that these efforts will help save the right whales from extinction?


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