Archive for the ‘Conservation’ Category

The Gulf of Mexico is home to approximately 1,700 sperm whales. Many of them feed just off the continental shelf, particularly around the Mississippi River delta, an area filled with ample food for these huge marine mammals. The whales reside in family groups, and rarely mingle with other sperm whale groups from the open Atlantic Ocean. They live as long as us, but reproduce at most only every five years. The Gulf of Mexico is their full-time home.

Since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank over sixty days ago, scientists have been concerned with the fate of Gulf of Mexico sperm whales. Sperm whales have been sighted in the fouled waters themselves, and no one knows what effect oil droplets will have on whale physiology and behavior. In addition, BP and the U.S. Coast Guard have been using unprecedented levels of chemical dispersants to scatter oil in the water, and no research has been done on the effect of even small amounts of these dispersants on cetaceans.

Given these uncertainties, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s discovery this week of a dead sperm whale near the spill zone is a particularly troubling find. On Tuesday, the NOAA ship Pisces cited the decayed corpse of a young, 25 foot long sperm whale adrift nearly 80 miles from the site of the (former) Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Based on the decay of the body and the degree of scavenging by sharks, scientists estimate the whale perished several days ago, but don’t yet know the cause of death. They have taken tissue samples to help determine how the whale may have died, and hopefully analysis of the whale’s genome will determine its sex, and whether or not it was definitely from the endangered Gulf of Mexico population (which, given its location, it probably was). Skin samples taken may determine whether the whale was exposed to large amounts of oil before it died. However, since the whale’s body was adrift for days, scientists will have to infer where it died based on current patterns in the area where the body was found, weather conditions over the past week, and forensic clues of the time of the whale’s death.

All in all, a dead sperm whale is a rare find in the Gulf of Mexico, and this discovery so close to the site of the oil spill may be a harbinger of the spill’s lasting effects on the Gulf’s ecosystem. However, more won’t be known until scientists announce the whale’s cause, time, and location of death. In the meantime, the NOAA vessel Gordon Gunter put to sea on Wednesday to survey Gulf of Mexico cetaceans and catalog some of the oil spill’s effects on their ecology, physiology, and behavior. The ship’s mission also includes orders to observe the Gulf’s endangered sperm whales, all 1,699 of them.

Image of a sperm whale diving near a deep water rig in the Gulf of Mexico provided courtesy of Christoph Richter, the Sperm Whale Seismic Study, the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the Minerals Management Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Oregon State University, and Texas A & M University.

Read Full Post »


Conservation biologists often obsess over counting animals in the wild.

“How many [insert animal name] are in [insert habitat name] this month? How do those population figures compare to last year at this time?”

If you think such questions are exciting, head to your nearest research university to start your Ph.D. in conservation biology. For the rest of us, take a few moments to appreciate how difficult it is to answer those questions. Counting animals? For the 2010 Census alone, the United States government has hired over 400,000 people to help count the total number of Americans, at a cost of over $11 billion. Even the most optimistic of scientific grants for counting another animal species wouldn’t cover a fraction of that budget.

Thus, to count their targets, conservationists have to get creative. A popular method for larger animals involves setting up motion-triggered cameras in the wild: an animal comes close to the camera, sensors record that motion and activate the camera, and the camera records a few seconds of footage for scientists to view later. Over time, the camera can record multiple images of animals passing by the camera, and scientists can extrapolate the total number of animals from a particular species based on the number of appearances of that species in the camera footage. They have to take other measures into account as well (the distance between cameras, what is known about the roaming or migratory patterns of the species in question, etc.), but this passive method sure beats hiring 400,000 Americans to count the number of jaguars in Guatemala.

Read Full Post »

A northern gannet, covered in thick brown oil, lies dead on a beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana. Northern gannets are usually white.

Over a month after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, oil continues to gush from its open well. This week, scientists and government officials announced that oil has fouled Louisiana marshlands and coastal habitats along the massive Mississippi River delta. The extent of the destruction and magnitude of the loss of won’t be known for some time. However, the bodies continue to mount, and many are questioning whether such complex marshlands can ever recover from such a catastrophe. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, take a look at the image below of Louisiana’s irreplaceable coastal marshes, now coated in thick brown oil.

In the meantime, the federal government has admitted that it does not have enough equipment and experts to take over BP’s failed attempts to stop the flow of oil from the untapped well or contain the spill. Thus, for now, BP remains in charge of the spill itself, while states along the Gulf of Mexico try in vain to protect precious miles of shoreline.

First image provided courtesy of Sean Gardner and Reuters. Second image provided courtesy of Gerald Herbert and the Associated Press.

Read Full Post »

Last night, I listened to a fascinating (but depressing) program on Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge. The topic: “Polar Stories.” I especially paid attention to a rather downtrodden segment on the future of the polar bears (or lack thereof) as sea ice over the Arctic Ocean disappears. The verdict: they’ll be gone in my lifetime.

Even if polar bears aren’t your thing, the entire program is worth a listen. They cover polar geology, the sensation of cold at the poles, and even Antarctic fiction.

Public radio isn’t the only venue reporting on the polar regions. This morning, the New York Times jumped into the Arctic arena with an article on the demise of the harp seal.

All this talk of the Arctic thaw made me wish humankind had some sort of Arctic ice tracking service… and, as it turns out, we do! The National Science Foundation and NASA have teamed up to create the National Snow and Ice Data Center. They have maps and datasets tracking Arctic ice, as well as simple explanations for those of us who don’t eat, sleep, and breathe oceanography or climatology. Take a look!

Image: three polar bears investigate an intruder, the Los Angeles Class attack submarine U.S.S. Honolulu (SSN 718), after it surfaced through Arctic sea ice some 280 miles from the North Pole in 2003.
Image credit: Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, United States Navy.

Read Full Post »

The above image is the Korean Peninsula at night, via satellite. If the Korean coastline isn’t very familiar to you, there’s a daytime image after the jump.

Read Full Post »