Scientists working in the waters of Patagonia are using satellite tags to remotely track southern right whales from their breeding grounds in the sheltered bays of Península Valdés, Argentina, to unknown feeding grounds somewhere in the western South Atlantic. This is a first of its kind and it could help the scientists eventually to provide clues to the cause of one of the largest great whale die-off ever recorded.
The international group effort for this endeavor includes members from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Aqualie Institute of Brazil, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Cascadia Research Collective, working in cooperation with Fundación Patagonia Natural, Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas, the University of California, Davis, the Dirección de Flora y Fauna (Wildlife Service), la Secretaría de Turismo, el Ministerio de Ambiente (Ministry of the Environment) of Argentina's Chubut Province.
Over the past decade, southern right whale calves have died in unprecedented numbers of more than 400 from 2003-2011 for reasons that are still unclear to scientists. Different hypotheses for this mortality have been considered, including disease, certain types of contaminant, and harassment and wounding by kelp gulls, a frequent occurrence in Península Valdés.
This new method of research will help assess where the whales are feeding, namely if there could be any threats to the whales along their migration route or on their feeding grounds. The research team can also conduct additional tagging and studies in order to determine any issues associated with food or nutritional stress causing calf loss by some mothers.
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