Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Scientist pioneers novel ways to study endangered baleen whales

Date: December 12, 2016
Source: Northern Arizona University

Although North Atlantic right whales, humpback whales and bowhead whales-all species of baleen whales-are some of the largest animals on Earth, they are also among the most critically endangered. These whales were hunted nearly to extinction over the last 300 years for their blubber, which was used to produce oil. Fortunately, these species are repopulating, but because they reproduce slowly, their numbers are more vulnerable to dangers such as collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing lines.

By understanding more about the female whales' breeding habits-including how often they breed, the length of their gestation and where they give birth-scientists can work with environmental groups and government agencies to find ways to better protect them. But because of their size and speed, and the vast expanse of ocean that is their habitat, they're extremely difficult animals for scientists to study.

Methods used to study other animals, such as obtaining blood samples, are literally impossible when it comes to these giant marine mammals. Even the most basic physiological information about these species remains unknown or uncertain among the scientific community.

That's why Kathleen Hunt, wildlife endocrinologist and research professor in Northern Arizona University's Department of Biological Sciences, has pioneered some novel ways to analyze the hormone levels present in unusual sample types. According to Hunt, who joined NAU in 2016, hormones produced by the endocrine glands-including the pituitary gland, the thyroid gland, the ovaries and testes-can reveal important clues about an animal such as its levels of stress and reproductive health.

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