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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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!

Dolphin Watch: Community Science in Action

How can a small team of scientists hope to measure a community of bottlenose dolphins – highly mobile animals – inhabiting a river stretching 60km through the capital of Western Australia?  By creating a network of citizen scientists!

The Swan-Canning Riverpark is an estuarine protected area flowing through Perth, WA.  Despite being situated in a major metropolitan area (over 1.4 million people), the river is home to a resident community of approximately 20 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins.  Murdoch and Curtin Universities are leading the research into Perth’s Swan River dolphins, investigating how environmental changes in the river and human activities can affect the dolphin community.  For more information on the latest paper from this project, please click here.

Dolphin Watching for Science

Click here to view the Dolphin Watch Annual Report 2012-13

Click here to view the Dolphin Watch Annual Report 2012-13

The Dolphin Watch project is a partnership between the Swan River Trust’s River Guardians program, and Murdoch and Curtin Universities.  It was instigated in April 2009 to learn more about the bottlenose dolphins residing in the Swan and Canning Rivers by training members of the local community to monitor the dolphins.

On Friday evening I had the pleasure of attending Dolphin Watch Day 2013.  Each year, the amazing  contribution of the Dolphin Watch volunteers are celebrated on Dolphin Watch Day, providing an opportunity to share the most recent discoveries and research news.  Since the project began in 2009, volunteers have contributed 7,180 records of dolphin sightings detailing the location, group size and behaviour of animals seen in the river.  This has helped develop scientists’ understanding of how the dolphins are using this area, and will support the conservation of these much-loved locals.

Benefits for scientists…

Marine mammals are difficult to spot at the best of times.  But trying to track them down in a long river system, full of bays and inlets, can be a time-consuming process.  However, each year thousands of people use the Swan River for sport, recreation and travel.  If those people are already out on the river, it makes sense to make use of local knowledge to discover more about the ecosystem and its inhabitants.  Dolphin Watch essentially gives the scientists ‘eyes’ along the whole length of the river.

The growing size of this data set will allow scientists to begin studying long-term trends in dolphin habitat use and behaviour.  It will also improve their ability to detect changes in population size and behaviour which may effect the conservation of these iconic animals.  Citizen science projects such as this help us to develop our understanding of the world around us, and directly contribute to important research and conservation efforts.

… as well as volunteers!

This ever increasing amount of date is due to the growing size of Dolphin Watch, as well as the ongoing efforts of established members.  With almost 600 members of the Perth community out voluntarily monitoring the river, it is extremely heartening to see so many people taking an interest in preserving the local environment and it’s fauna.

But it’s more than just spotting the occasional dolphin.  People go out of their way to attend training sessions, fill in sighting reports, and spend hours scanning the water.  Already this year, they have submitted over 600 sightings so far – that’s a total of 2,467 hours dolphin watching!  A phenomenal effort!

And this is because people care.  They take an interest in the world around them, and want to know the outcomes of the research they’re helping to conduct.  They enjoy spending time in the natural environment, and want to ensure that future generations have the same opportunity.  They are an inspiration – and I hope their numbers continue to swell, bringing benefits to not only the dolphin community but our own community as well.

More Info?

The Dolphin Watch Annual Report (2012-13) became available on 14th June 2013.  For more information about the work of this exemplary citizen science program, have a flick through the report here!