What a Fluke – Citizen Scientists Sight Whale Species First for Europe

Last week, two friends enjoying a beach-walk in the Isles of Scilly saw an unusual-looking whale not far off the shore.  They quickly used their mobile phone to take some photos, and noted down the relevant sighting details.  This information was later submitted to the Sea Watch Foundation, a UK marine environmental research charity.  As the whale did not appear to have a dorsal fin, the ladies assumed it was a sperm whale – which would have been unusual in itself, given that this species is a deep-water specialist.

The Mystery Whale

When the cetacean experts at the Sea Watch Foundation reviewed the photos, they were astonished to realise that what the ladies had sighted was even more unusual!

Dr Peter Evans, Founder and Director of Sea Watch Foundation, admits that the photos were a challenge.  “Even with enlarging them, and trying to sharpen them up within Adobe Photoshop, it was very hard to pick out the more subtle features due to the low resolution of the pictures, or even to tell exactly what part of the body was showing in some of the photos“, he says.  “One image, however, showed the animal closer than the rest, and revealed the shape of the head and even the jaw-line“.

The head of the whale, photographed by Fay Page / Sea Watch Foundation

The head of the unusual whale sighted in the Isles of Scilly last week.  Photo: Fay Page / Sea Watch Foundation

This curving jaw-line eliminated sperm whale as an option, as this toothed species has a very straight mandible as opposed to baleen whale species who show a downwards-curving jaw.  Dr Evans sought second-opinions from colleagues in the US, including experts such as Dr Tom Jefferson from Texas A&M University, Dr Phil Clapham from the government agency NOAA in Washington DC, and Dr Scott Kraus from New England Whale Museum in Provincetown. They isolated identifying features, including the curved jaw-line, the lack of a dorsal fin, a light patch under the chin and some black spotting along the top of the head.

And the Answer is…

The consensus agreement was as exciting as it was unexpected – a bowhead whale.  Given the context of a photo showing one of the ladies entering the water with the whale, this animal is thought to be a juvenile.  Adults can grow up to 20 metres long and weigh almost 90 tonnes.  Bowheads appear to be one of the longest-lived whale species around, with some animals thought to be 200 years old, based on old Inuit harpoon heads recovered from hunted individuals.

Anna Cawthray wades into the water to get a closer view of the animal, which shows little reaction to her presence. Photo: Fay Page / Sea Watch Foundation

Anna Cawthray wades into the water to get a closer view of the animal, which shows little reaction to her presence. Photo: Fay Page / Sea Watch Foundation

A First for Europe – But Why Now?

Excitingly, this is the first sighting of a bowhead whale in not just the UK, but the rest of Europe.  These whales normally live in the high Arctic, where they suffered severe exploitation by commercial whales since the 1500s.  By the 1920s, there was thought to be only around 3,000 individuals left.  However, thanks to the cessation of commercial whaling in 1986, their numbers appear to have increased to around 15,000 – 20,000 animals, mainly in the Beaufort Sea and Arctic Ocean.

But the question now is, what was a bowhead whale doing so far south?  There have been increased sightings of warmer-water species around the UK over the past decade, presumably as a result of global warming encouraging species to extend their ranges north-wards.  So to find a cold-water specialist so far south is enigmatic, particularly as bowheads generally tend to never stray far from the ice-edge.  Dr Peter Evans suggests that global warming could still be to blame.

In March 2012, a bowhead whale was photographed in Cape Cod Bay, New England, and the same individual re-appeared in the same area a year later, in early April“, he explains.  “These records far from the natural range of the species may in fact be the result of ice fragmentation, leading to animals straying further south. The welcome increase in the size of the West Greenland population may also be a contributory factor for why this creature appeared some two thousand miles from its normal range.

The Value of Citizen Science

From my point of view, one of the other important realisations from this sighting is the role citizen science has to play in research.  It is obviously impossible for researchers to be everywhere at once – to be honest, the further you progress into a marine research career, the more time you spend land-locked at your desk!  So having trained eyes, in the form of citizen scientists, scattered around the coast provides whole new opportunities for data collection.  Citizen science also promotes awareness of the natural world, by educating volunteers, connecting them with scientists, and actively engaging them in conservation.

The Sea Watch Foundation was founded in 1991 to find out more about cetaceans in British and Irish waters.  It aimed to do this by involving the public in the study of these animals, rather than relying on occasional scientist-led surveys and examination of dead animals from strandings.  Sea Watch Foundation now has two main offices in the UK, as well as 35 local groups of observers who have generated thousands of sightings.

Why not explore what citizen science projects operate near you?

 

 

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The Last 55: Final chance for Maui’s dolphins

Maui's dolphinFifty-five is not a big number.  But it could mean a world of difference to one small dolphin species in New Zealand.

Maui’s dolphin is the world’s rarest and smallest known subspecies of dolphin.  Found only in New Zealand,they typically range close to the coast in small pods although they can also be found around harbour mouths and further offshore.  But their numbers have been decreasing due to entanglement in fishing gear and disease, with approximately 4 to 5 Maui’s killed each year.  Which doesn’t seem like too many, right?

A bit of maths

In the 1970s, the dolphin population was reportedly around 1,800 individuals.  But the species has rapidly declined since net-setting and trawling were introduced in the 1970s.  A 2012 research study estimated that only 55 Maui’s dolphins now remain.  Suddenly that 4 to 5 death rate seems a lot bigger.  So just since that study was conducted, we are probably already approaching a population size of around 40 animals. Extinction isn’t just a threat – it’s a very real likelihood.

If we are losing 10% of the population each year, you don’t have to be a mathematical genius to know that things aren’t looking good for the Maui’s.  Especially given their slow reproduction rate – females reach maturity at approximately 8 years of age, and only have one calf every 2 – 4 years.

What is being done?

The New Zealand government generally has a pretty good standing when it comes to conservation.  In 2003, a ban on commercial set nets was added to an existing ban on recreational netting from north of Auckland to north of Taranaki, covering out to four nautical miles from shore.  In 2008, this was extended to seven nautical miles and in 2012 the ban on set nets extended further south.  Last year, the Minister of Conservation finalised a Maui’s Dolphin Threat Management Plan, which includes codes of practice for seismic surveys, regulations for inshore boat racing, and the establishment of a Maui’s Dolphin Research Advisory Group.

So are things improving?

Debatable. Although various marine protected areas have been created with the aim of conserving Maui’s dolphins, the government has failed to extend protections to areas where there have been credible recent sightings of the animals.  That’s the thing about marine mammal conservation – these are free-ranging animals who cover large areas in a dynamic habitat.  Thus, the distribution of populations will change over time and so needs constant re-assessment if protected areas are to have a positive effect.  But this is an investment the NZ government seems unwilling to make.

And despite several promising moves on the government’s part, it looks like money might win through in the end.  This week, it has been reported by several news groups that the West Coast North Island Marine Mammal Sanctuary – home to the Maui’s dolphin – has been signed off for oil and gas exploration.

The NZ government signed off a block offer of sea and land in April, which includes a 3,000 square kilometre overlap into the sanctuary.  Oil and gas development in this area could have a devastating impact on Maui’s habitat by increasing levels of underwater noise through seismic surveys, as well as putting the area at greater risk of oil spills.

The government has already had previous bungles with the block offer, with Simon Bridges, the Minister of Energy and Resources signing off New Zealand’s biggest forest park for drilling – despite having never heard of it.  Not exactly reassuring that the government is taking conservation seriously.

In fact, politicians are arguing whether this is even an issue, and NZ Conservation Minister Nick Smith is insisting that there hasn’t been a single observation of a Maui’s dolphin in the proposed exploration area.  So no need to worry.

But you have to wonder how hard they’ve looked?

What you can do

Numerous scientific and conservation groups have already called for the New Zealand government to take action to save the Maui’s dolphin.  Just last week, the International Whaling Commission urged the government to do more to save the species, stating that it had “extreme concern” about the decline in Maui’s dolphins.

In a recent report, the IWC estimated that Maui’s will decline to just 10 adult breeding females in six years and become functionally extinct in less than 20 years – unless their full range is protected from gillnetting and trawling.

Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 9.15.55 amWWF have stepped up their “Last 55” campaign to save the Maui’s dolphin, urging parliament to announce permanent measures that remove fishing gear which kills dolphins and help affected fishermen adopt dolphin-friendly fishing methods.   “Anything less will not give the species a fighting chance at survival.”

Support their campaign by signing the WWF online petition here.  And hopefully we can convince the New Zealand government to stop faffing around and start taking effective steps to save the Maui’s dolphin.

Strength in Numbers – citizen science project outnumbers dolphins 28 to 1

Last week I was invited to talk at the latest Dolphin Watch training event.  Not that I need much of an excuse to talk about dolphins in general, but the chance to help introduce 180 new recruits to the Swan River dolphins was definitely not to be missed!

Background:  the Dolphin Watch project

The newest recruits of Dolphin Watch

The newest recruits of Dolphin Watch!

I’ve discussed the Dolphin Watch project in previous posts – but for those of you not in the know, Dolphin Watch is a citizen science project monitoring the dolphins inhabiting the Swan-Canning Riverpark.  It is a partnership between the Swan River Trust (SRT), Curtin University and Murdoch University which was instigated in 2009 to learn more about the bottlenose dolphins residing in the Swan and Canning Rivers.  Since this river system stretches for over 60km, it would be pretty tricky for the researchers to survey alone.  But by creating a network of citizen scientists, we now have eyes throughout the river park!

Dolphin Watch volunteers are generally people who are regular river users – whether they are kayaking up the Canning, sailing through the Swan, or just walking along the river trails!  And if they’re out by the river, then why not report the presence of dolphins?  Of course, it is just as important to know which areas the dolphins are not being sighted in.  This helps us to create a presence / absence map of dolphin sightings, and get a feel for what areas might be particularly important to this population.

Training Time!

Dr Chandra Salgado Kent explains the online monitoring form at Dolphin Watch training

Dr Chandra Salgado Kent explains the online monitoring form at Dolphin Watch training

Twice a year, Dolphin Watch runs training nights for new volunteers.  They get to hear about the purpose of the project, monitoring river health, some background to the dolphins, and how to collect sightings information.  Plus they pick up a pretty snazzy shirt and hat combo, not to mention a tote bag full of Swan River Trust goodies!

Wednesday 26th March was the first training session of 2014 down at Scitech.  Speakers included Marnie Giroud (Program Manager of the SRT’s “River Guardians” program), Dr Kerry Trayler (Principle Scientists at SRT), my supervisor Dr Chandra Salgado Kent, and Piers Higgs (Director of Gaia Resources who developed the Dolphin Watch app).  An amazing 180 new volunteers attending, bringing the total number of Dolphin Watchers to over 700 people!  With only around 25 dolphins in the riverpark, we’ve got a pretty good chance of spotting them!

And now introducing…

My role was to discuss Dolphin Ecology.  So, after a few minutes fighting with the tempremental microphone, I gave a run-down on some bottlenose dolphin life history, previous research, distribution and habitat-use, foraging ecology, and dolphin conservation.  Half an hour just flew by!  The question-time was pretty fun, with lots of good questions about dolphin behaviour 🙂

It was pretty strange being back in Scitech.  Especially doing a presentation there that didn’t involve slime, liquid nitrogen, or a single explosion!  I had quite a bit of nostalgia for the good old days of being an Outreach Science Presenter…  But at the same time, it felt fantastic to stand up and talk about something that I really cared about.  As much as I love setting myself on fire in the name of science, nothing beats talking about your own research!  Although if you have any suggestions on how I can work a fireball into a talk on dolphin ecology, please email them through! 😉

Interested in Joining?

Our next training day will be in August 2014.  If you’re keen on coming along, check out the Dolphin Watch website or shoot me an email for more information!

The Death of Conservation

Last month was the 19-year anniversary of the death of my greatest conservation heroes.  He fought for change – in the purpose of zoos, the role of scientists, the preservation of species and their habitats, and ultimately the attitude of people towards nature. But does public opinion still uphold such beliefs, or is support of conservation slipping?  And more importantly – particularly given recent events in Australia – will governments still fight to protect our environment?

Previously, zoo conditions were often nothing better than animal pits (Photo: Tampa Bay Times)

Early zoo conditions were often just animal pits (Photo: Tampa Bay Times)

Changing the Purpose of Captivity

Gerald Durrell was born in 1925 and quickly developed an obsession with the natural world.  His first word was “zoo” and as a toddler he demanded to be taken on daily trips to the local menagerie.  The primary purpose of zoos in those days was entertainment, with most establishments aiming to give the public a close-up view of charismatic fauna like lions, elephants and monkeys.  Unfortunately, the conditions these animals were living in were close to squalor, with more emphasis being placed on a good view than animal welfare.  Furthermore, due to their poor conditions, few of these captive animals successfully bred and so upon their (usually early) deaths they were replaced from wild populations.  This animal collecting, combined with hunting, habitat destruction, and an increased distribution of human activities, caused many wild populations to dramatically decline.

But to Gerald Durrell, the purpose of a zoo was more important than entertainment – it was an opportunity to educate the public, contribute to scientific knowledge, and create captive breeding stocks of threatened species.  His was not a zoo full of lions and tigers – it acted as a safe haven for little-regarded, yet critically endangered, species such as the Madagascan aye-aye, Mauritius kestrel, and Haitian giant gulliwasp lizard.  Thanks to his captive breeding and re-introduction programs, Durrell was able to regenerate wild populations of these species and many more.  He went on to become a world-renowned naturalist, conservationist, author and television presenter.  But his living legacy exists in the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, which promotes the captive breeding and re-introduction of threatened species as well as protection of their natural habitats.  The Trust also assists with the education and training of local people in communities home to these endangered species, ensuring that they have the means to protect their native fauna and flora well into the future.

A New Generation of Conservationists

The creation of the Trust coincided with a time when public feeling regarding the natural environment was changing.  The 19th Century had been a time of increasing interest in nature and scientific thinking, with several animal welfare groups being founded towards the end of the 1800s in addition to governmental departments for forestry and land management.  The idea was slowly rising that humans had a duty to protect natural resources for future generations.

The Durrell Wildlife Preservation Trust has already trained up 3,350 conservationists from 135 countries to ensure local hands-on involvement in conservation issues

The Durrell Trust has already trained up 3,350 conservationists from 135 countries.

By the 1900s, efforts arose targeting individual species for protection leading to a global awareness of conservation biology.  The decline of wild populations was being widely noted, leading the public to rise up and demand protection for wild animal populations.  Popular examples include protests to ban whaling, save mountain gorillas, and stop the hunting of big cats.  Not only was the public taking an interest in wildlife management, but in many cases they were actively protesting and fighting for the legal protection of threatened species.

Soon the idea began to spread that to protect a species you must also protect its habitat.  The work of the likes of Gerald Durrell, in establishing successful captive breeding programs, was pointless if there was nowhere to re-introduce the animals to.  And so the focus changed to creating and maintaining national parks, sanctuary zones, and other protected areas to guard both animals and their habitats.  As this need for “green space” increased and conflicted with “human space”, many groups of people began changing their habits to reduce impact on the environment.  The idea of “reduce, reuse, recycle” became widely advertised, along with eco-versions of many products.  The pressure was on society and companies to prove how green they could be.

Current Conservation Issues in Australia

Yet, at the same time, while many people continue to “do their bit” and minimise their environmental impact, others have grown complacent.  If so much is already being done, does it really matter if they slack off?  With so many protected forests, can’t they afford to take a bit more?  With so many increasing animal populations, can’t they just hunt or fish a bit more?  Everyone has done so much for the environment already, isn’t it okay to mold it to human-uses?

The last six months has seen a disturbing increase in such thinking in Australia, to the point that some are wondering whether the current government is the most hostile to the nation’s environment in history.  In Western Australia, endangered sharks are being culled.  In Queensland, the world-famous Great Barrier Reef is under threat from the dumping of dredge spoil.  In Tasmania, World Heritage listed rainforest is to be opened up to commercial logging.  Around Australia, the marine reserve network – which, when announced, was to be the biggest in the world – has been scrapped.

The shark cull involves setting baited-drum lines along the WA coast near popular beaches, with the aim of catching great white, tiger and bull sharks over 3m long.  The lines are checked regularly, and any sharks above the size limit are shot; smaller sharks are released.  Unfortunately, of the 66 sharks caught in drum-lines since 1st Feb, 50 have been undersized.  Of these, 40 were released – but due to injuries sustained from bait hooks, it is uncertain how many released sharks would actually survive.  There is also the risk that drum-lines will catch other animals, such as dolphins, turtles and non-target shark species.  Worst of all is the fact that other studies indicate that drum-lines will not reduce shark attack rates, and suggest that there are various other methods better suited to reducing the risk of human-shark interactions.  With a range of other (research-supported) options available, it is not necessary to jump to the “shoot-it-in-the-head” method.

The survival rate of hooked undersized sharks is uncertain, with some sustaining large injuries

The survival rate of hooked undersized sharks is uncertain, with some sustaining large injuries (Photo:  PerthNow.com.au)

Before you can control any wild animal, you have to know something about its basic biology; a simple policy of slaughter – quite apart from its threat to the survival of that particular species – is liable to do untold damage to the whole ecological structure of the country.  An unbiological approach in different parts of the world to problems of this sort have, in the past, proved disastrous.  So if an animal is becoming a pest you must set out to learn everything you can about it; it is a case of ‘knowing thine enemy‘” says Gerald Durrell decades ago.  But it looks like these words are no less needed or true today.

On the other side of the country, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has approved plans to dump 3 million cubic meters of dredge spoil within the marine park area to allow expansion of a coal-export port.  Such sediment from dredging has been previously shown to damage coral and seagrasses by smothering them and causing exposure to poisons and elevated nutrients.  This comes shortly after the new government’s decision to suspend Australia’s Marine Reserve Network and change management plans to allow access to these marine areas by recreational fishers.

Meanwhile, back on land, the Federal Government has made a bid to open Tasmania’s World Heritage forests to logging.  After decades of fierce debate between forestry and conservation groups, an additional 170,000 hectares became protected as part of a “peace deal”.  The logging bid would see over half of this opened for commercial use, with the government arguing that the area in question is already degraded due to previous logging.  Yet World Heritage experts claim 90% of it is pristine forest.  Even the Tasmanian timber industry opposes this move to de-list the forest.

Durrell wrote many novels detailing his childhood as an amateur naturalist, early career as a zookeeper and animal collector, and later years working in conservation.  His book “Two in the Bush” describes a visit to Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia in the 1960s, in which he becomes enraptured by the land downunder:

We all fell in love with Australia completely and instantly.  If ever I was compelled to settle down in one spot – which God forbid – Australia is one of the few countries I have visited that I could choose

I wonder if that would still hold true today?

Discipline with a Deadline

The need for ongoing conservation is obvious.  But is the public willing to rise up in aid of these issues?  Thankfully,  the overwhelming answer appears to be ‘yes’.

Over 6,000 people attended just one anti-cull shark rally in WA

Over 6,000 people attended just one anti-cull shark rally in WA (Photo: bbc.co.uk)

Public protests and social media petitions against the WA shark cull have seen over 6,000 people gather on one Perth beach alone.  Support has also sprung up in the form of additional protests around the world, with the public of New Zealand, South Africa, UK, USA, Spain, and so many others uniting against the cull.  Online petitions against damaging our Heritage-Listed rainforests and coral reefs are also spreading through the wonders of social media, as are messages from groups fighting for the re-instatement of Australian marine parks.

Conservation biology is often referred to as the “discipline with a deadline”, emphasising the importance of immediate action to help species reduced to a few dozen individuals or habitats shrinking in size each day.  It does not necessitate the end of modern living and everyday convenience – just a revision of old ways of thinking.  Every little helps.  As Durrell points out in his ‘Two in the Bush’ novel:

You cannot, of course, halt progress, but is it necessary to destroy everything in your path to achieve it?

As long as we continue to think about the world around us and voice our concerns, we have the chance to make a difference.  But the remaining question is: will anyone in authority listen?

Mapping Unexpected Visitors – sightings of uncommon marine species

The coastal town of Albany, Western Australia had a surprise visitor this week, in the rather large form of a southern elephant seal.  Although still just a juvenile, this 2.5m male is thought to weigh-in at somewhere between 500 and 700 kg – not exactly something you want to find in your front yard!  But when Rhonda Bell looked outside, that’s exactly what she found!

The seal has been basking on Rhonda’s beachside property on-and-off over the last week, occasionally moving up and down the coastal road.  Local residents have been turning up by the dozen to check out the unusual marine mammal.  Southern Elephant Seals breed in colonies on South Georgia, Macquarie Island, Heard Island and the Kerguelen Islands. For most of the year they live in the cold oceans of the sub-Antarctic.  However, at this time of year winter fronts can sweep in various migratory animals to Western Australia.  Since elephant seals are used to travelling long-distances (records of an elephant seal travelling 18,000 miles over a year), no doubt this one will none the worse for wear.

In the meantime, the media are having a field day with seal-related puns as a result (my personal favourite “Sealed road a big hit with locals“).  Although worryingly, not many people seem to know much about the animal.  One local kid was quoted as saying “I wasn’t sure what it was – I thought maybe a remote-controlled hippopotamus” (see the video here).  Oh dear…

The 'sea monk' was a monster from the North Sea - not sure if there's a Redmap category for this!

The ‘sea monk’ was a monster from the North Sea – not sure if there’s a Redmap category for this!

But admittedly, when something strange appears in your local patch of ocean, how are you supposed to figure out what it is?

One new initiative is trying to map the occurrence of ‘uncommon’ marine species sightings using citizen science.  Started by the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS), the Redmap project invites Australians to share sightings of marine species that are unusual in their local seas.  Over time, Redmap will use this information to map changes in species distribution and ranges and try to determine the cause (e.g. changes in the marine environment).  The added benefit to you, is that once a sighting is logged it goes to a scientist for verification.  This means that you can get an expert opinion to confirm whatever strange species you come across.

Another good reason to go check out the ocean!  You never know what you might find, and it might just help scientific research!