Rutgers University
  • Understanding seabird and whale distributions and populations from a big boat

    Posted on December 15th, 2021 Mike Crowley No comments

    Megan Cimino, Ross Nichols, Megan Roberts, Darren Roberts

    During this research cruise, the whale and seabird teams mainly spend the day on the ship’s bridge recording all seabird, seal and whale species. Because we are in Antarctica during the spring, there are very few hours of darkness, roughly midnight to 3 am. Therefore, the seabird team members – Megan and Megan – work in shifts, one person working in the early morning to midday and one member working midday to midnight. We have seen a variety of seabirds ranging from large albatross (the size of a small dog) to tiny storm petrels (the size of a hamster).

    When the ship is near important penguin breeding colonies, the seabird researchers take a small boat to shore to count the number of nesting penguins to understand how their populations change over time in response to environmental conditions. A few days ago, team counted nearly 10,000 penguins in 7 hours using hand clickers, which required hiking over 6 miles in snowy and windy conditions. At this time of year, the penguins are beginning to lay and incubate their eggs that will hatch in late December.

    When a feeding and slow-moving group of whales are spotted from the ship, this provides an opportunity for the whale researchers – Ross and Darren – to go out in a small zodiac boat to take pictures and other biological samples. Pictures of whale flukes allow scientists to identify individual whales because their fluke is similar to a human’s fingerprint- everyone is unique! This allows us to estimate individual animal movements and population size. Small samples of the animal’s blubber can be used to determine if a whale is male or female, and can also identify if a female is pregnant. By monitoring the ratio of males to females and the rates of pregnancy, we can assess the health and growth of whale populations.

    Identify a Whale! Can you tell these whale flukes apart?

    These observations and samples are important because seabirds, seals, and whales are the major predators in Antarctica. These indicator species can tell us a lot about the health of the ocean’s ecosystem. It is difficult to know how many fish and krill are in the Southern Ocean but we can learn a lot by studying the health of larger animals that feed on them. Changes in the health of the animals or changes in species observed can tell us how the ecosystem is changing, especially in the context of climate change. As temperatures are warming rapidly in this polar region, it is very important to understand how these animals are responding to these changes to learn more about the overall health of our oceans.


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