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Whale Song: A New Discovery in a Mysterious World

When we think of whale song, we think of long mournful yet musical cries echoing through the ocean. We may listen to the song of the humpback to relax, in the bath or when reading a book, and some may even use it during labour. I always used to listen to it when trying to revise for important exams as I found that it had quite a calming effect on me, and subsequently I found it much easier to remember information. I’m sure many of us are well acquainted with the soothing sounds and have surely heard it at some point before. Perhaps we even listen to it quite often and so it may come as a bit of a surprise to learn that even to this day it remains something of a mystery. However, this may be about to change as a recent study has revealed an interesting and previously unknown element of the beautiful and haunting song.

In 2016, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHO) published a new study regarding humpback whales and their songs. The study uncovered a new component of the songs previously overlooked in the past. This is thought to be incredibly important in furthering our understanding of whale communication and hearing.

Throughout the study, biologist Aran Mooney and the research team based themselves off the coast of Maui in Hawaii. They centred their studies upon the local humpback whale population and focused on two key elements of whale song: pressure waves and particle motion. Pressure waves are the waves that vibrate against the ear drum and allow us to detect noise. Imagine you are sat in your house and a neighbour starts playing loud music nearby. Obviously you can hear it and that comes as a result of the pressure waves. You can also feel a vibrating in your chest and on your chair, like a deep, rumbling vibration. That is known as particle motion and it is an aspect of whale song that, up until now, has been fairly lacking in research.  Unlike pressure waves which can be monitored through the use of a hydrophone, a well-used and easily accessible piece of equipment, particle motion must be recorded via an accelerometer. This equipment is hard to come by and is not often available for researchers to use. Luckily, Mooney and the team had access to both.

What did they discover?
According to Mooney, it came as quite a surprise to discover that the particle motion of the humpbacks’ songs travelled considerably further than expected. After allowing themselves to drift away from the whales whilst continuing to monitor the sounds, they learned that it was travelling up to 200 metres with the potential to move even further. This is incredible in itself, and it is believed that particle motion could be a whole new strand of cetacean communication.

What does this mean for the whales?

Firstly, it means that scientists are closer to finding out more about the true use of whale song. Whilst the songs have been studied comprehensively in the past, the exact reason that humpback whales use them remains elusive. Generally, it is believed that they play an important part of their mating ritual, with the males using the longest and most complex songs to win the females. However, it is widely believed that they may also be used in feeding, socialising and competing. This discovery, it is hoped, will contribute to understanding more about whale communication as it adds a whole new aspect. If the anatomy of the whale is anything to go by, then there is the potential that they have the ability to sense the vibrations in much the same way as elephants do through their feet. With their ear bones attached to their skulls in a way that would allow them to pick up such vibrations, it could be that this previously overlooked component could prove to be a key part of both communication and hearing. The team have stressed that further studies are vital in understanding exactly how whales use particle motion, but it is a step forward in learning more about the mysterious and secretive world of whale song.

Continuing with the impact that the study will have upon the whales, it is important to address the concerns of human noise in the ocean environment. It is a well-known fact that we are having a truly detrimental effect on our oceans ranging from the use of plastic to abandoned fishing gear and shark nets, but it is the noisiness of human activity raising concerns here. If this vibration does prove to be vital in whale communication, then it might be assumed that we are having a more terrifying impact.

Particle motion, as mentioned, travels at a very low frequency as does the noise of shipping, seismic exploration and leisure activities. Does this then mean that we are effectively drowning out the whales whilst they try to speak to each other? If we are in a crowded room, full of people shouting and singing and generally making noise and then try to talk to somebody, it is very, very difficult to do so. It is frustrating and hard work. So imagine how much worse it would be if you didn’t know these people and they had just wandered into your home and started making a noise. It would be unbearable and incredibly infuriating. As Mooney says, noise in our oceans is often overlooked, we do not hear it and so cannot necessarily equate our actions with consequence. For the whales and other marine life, though, there is no doubt that it can be damaging. We already know that many fish depend upon particle motion and so can potentially be affected badly by noise hitting the seabed from seismic or pile driving activities.

Of course the WHO study is just one drop in the ocean of research and, I predict, it is the start of many similar studies to come. However, it does raise some very interesting questions and certainly sheds more light on the strange and secretive watery world of the whale. What can be said for certain is that the more we learn and continue to discover about our world, the more can be done to make a difference to help us to protect and conserve our environment.

Plastic Pollution And It’s Devastating Consequences On Our Oceans- Sea Watch Newsletter January 2016

It is pretty much guaranteed that at some point in your daily life, you will come into contact with plastic. You may find it holding your cereal in the morning and wrapped around your sandwiches at lunch time. It could be used to carry your shopping home or cover food and hold drinks in the fridge. The use of plastic may seem to be second-nature to many of us now but sadly it’s convenience is coming at a price.  The results of an international study have shown that there is now enough plastic to wrap the Earth in a layer of clingfilm,  with around 5 billion tonnes of it produced since the end of the Second World War; a significant amount with a significant impact. With the 5p bag charge introduced in the UK, the issue is certainly being highlighted but what is the true cost of plastic bags on the marine wildlife world?

In terms of quality of life and survival, the answer is expensive. A recent study conducted by the environmental organisation ‘Ocean Conservancy’ has indicated that whilst abandoned fishing gear poses the most significant risk to sea life, coming in a close second is waste pollution in the world’s waters. The media is consistently littered with reports of wildlife caught in abandoned plastic bags, tangled in neglected six pack rings or discovered with stomachs full of discarded bags and packaging. Back in 2013, for example, a young dolphin was rescued by a group of fisherman off the coast of Sao Paulo in Brazil after becoming entangled in a plastic bag. Struggling to stay afloat and clearly in distress, the calf appeared to be thankful when the fisherman carefully lifted it onto the boat and untangled it before placing it back into the water. Likewise, in 2015 a melon headed whale was found dead on a Florida beach and when a necropsy was carried out to determine, a large bag was discovered blocking the animal’s intestinal tract. Last summer an endangered Olive Ridley turtle had to have an object removed from it’s nose which turned out to be a plastic straw and in Australia, the Taronga wildlife hospital has been inundated with Little Penguins all requiring treatment for injures caused by plastic. Plastic pollution is not species specific. It can harm any creature that comes into contact with it and is clearly an increasing issue.

It is important to note that is not only large pieces of plastic damaging the environment. When broken down by UV rays, wind and wave erosion, these large fragments break into smaller and smaller pieces until they become microscopic. These tiny pieces are then ingested by creatures like krill which sit at the bottom of the food chain and subsequently progress up the food chain, increasing in toxicity through the process of biomagnification. This means that whilst marine life is being harmed, we are too and with very harmful consequences like cancer and developmental issues, it is certainly something that needs to be addressed.  According to reports, at the rate we’re going in the production and disposal of plastic, by 2025 it is possible that for every 3 tonnes of fish there may be 1 tonne of plastic. From the bottom of the food chain to the top, each and every one of us is and will be affected and something needs to change.

In order to help tackle this ever-growing problem, scientists at the Imperial College in London have invented a device to help filter debris from the water. By attaching a number of “v” shaped barriers to the seabed, using a screen suspended underneath they hope to trap plastic caught in the ocean currents which will then be funnelled to a platform where it will be stored until it can be removed for recycling. In addition to this, a pair of surfers from Perth, Australia have designed a floating rubbish bin designed to catch not only plastic debris but also detergents and oil on the surface. By placing the devices in sheltered marinas and harbours, the natural ocean currents trap the pollution which can then be filtered out through a water pump and then removed without trapping or harming any marine life.

There are many people working hard to reduce our synthetic effects and so on a more personal level, what steps can we take in order to reduce our plastic impact on the environment?

It’s simple, follow the 3 “R”s: REDUCE, REUSE and REFUSE.

REDUCE: In order to prevent more waste entering the oceans, it’s important to reduce the risk by cleaning up our beaches. Why not attend one of the many beach clean ups around the UK or maybe organise your own?

REUSE: Every day we come into contact with plastic on a regular basis and whilst some of it may be recycled, unfortunately some of it cannot. Instead of throwing used plastic away, finding other uses for it can be a fantastic way of limiting it’s effect on the environment.

REFUSE: Charging 5p per plastic bag is certainly a step forward in terms of reducing the amount of waste entering our oceans but straws and bottles are also responsible for many needless deaths in the world’s waters. Instead of cheap plastic straws why not switch to biodegradable paper straws instead or refuse to use them altogether and take your own bags to the supermarket?

Plastic pollution is having devastating effects upon the marine world. Entanglement to inhalation, ingestion to consumption, from the tiniest fragments to the largest pieces; every bit of plastic entering the water has a catastrophic consequence. Something needs to change and if that means spending that little bit more on a bag for life, go for it. It could save a thousand lives.

Shark Control And The Struggle For Survival- Sea Watch Foundation Newsletter November/December 2015

Heart pounding and fins thrashing, the dolphin twists frantically trying to escape the hook embedded deep inside her abdomen. Unable to help, her mother circles her desperate to try and save her baby who is now blinded in one eye by the constant friction of the drum line chain. There is nothing she can do. Her baby is just one of thousands of victims of the Queensland Shark Control Program and it’s time that something changed.

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In 1962, the Queensland Shark Control Program was set up; it’s creation fuelled by the numerous and fatal shark attacks along the coast line. With 30 nets and 260 baited drum lines along the coast line, the programme is designed to catch and kill any actively feeding and resident sharks which may pose a threat to the public and in doing so, reduce any human-shark incidents. However, in their attempt to eradicate one problem, it seems as though others have inadvertently been created.

According to figures released by Sea Shepherd Australia, since it’s establishment the SCP has reportedly caused the deaths of 103,000 marine animals, 53,000 of these classified as by-catch. This means that many animals which do not pose a threat to humans, including many species of sharks, have been killed unnecessarily, trapped in nets unable to breathe or hooked on baited lines sometimes suffering for hours. Not only is this catastrophic on an individual basis, it is also devastating to the whole marine ecosystem.

Between 2009 and 2014, 406 non target species died due to entanglement. Out of these, 76 were dolphin species, some of which are listed as vulnerable or near threatened like the Snubfin dolphin, the Australian Humpback dolphin and the Spinner dolphin. As these species take years to mature, this is having a serious impact on populations, some of which are made up of only 50 or 60 individuals. Likewise, the dugong population is also facing a significant threat after having lost 689 individuals since the project began as are turtles, who have seen a loss of 5,044; 33 of these the critically endangered Hawksbill turtle. In addition to these shocking losses, Humpback whales have been found entangled in nets along the Gold Coast which is part of their annual migratory route and an Antarctic Minke whale was discovered drowning, weighed down with people unable to help rescue it. 

Sharks are also suffering. Catch data from 2001 to 2013 has revealed that out of the 6,250 sharks caught on drum lines, 89% were less than 3 metres long so less than likely to pose a threat to people and 97% were at risk according to the ICUN.  Only 4 species of shark are released if found alive, the Grey Nurse, Tawny, Zebra and Whale sharks, and even then there is no guarantee that they will survive. Along with other sea life, some are simply to traumatised or injured to make it through.

All these examples show that many species are being caught up in a system which is having a much higher ecological impact than many people are aware of. With claims that the decrease in shark attack fatalities cannot be clearly linked to the installation of drum lines and nets in Queensland and with shark control programmes in New South Wales and in Western Australia impacting upon marine life in those areas as well, there is significant doubt as to whether this loss of life is truly worth it.

So what can be done to help reduce the impact on non target species?

The official Queensland Shark Control Program website states that for the past 5 years, research has been conducted into reducing by-catch whilst maintaining the shark deterrent aspect. This has involved the establishment of Marine Animal Rescue Teams (MART) who are trained and equipped to release marine animals trapped in the nets as well as volunteer marine spotters posted in high rise buildings along the coast. This, along with a shark hotline, various assessments of the nets and baited drum lines and advances in acoustic deterrents for cetaceans, has seen some improvements in terms of animals caught and released. However, one of the most promising prevention methods appears to be the Eco Shark Barrier, independently created by Craig and Leanne Moss.

Trialled in Western Australia’s Coogee Beach, the Eco Shark Barrier is made of a strong and flexible nylon which creates a shield from the seabed to the surface. Rather than aiming to catch and kill sharks in the area, as the current shark programme does, the barriers simply section off the beach without causing any harm to marine life and to date, no by catch has been recorded. With openings measuring 30cm, any marine creatures smaller than this are able to swim freely through the barrier whereas the larger animals simply find themselves unable to pass through without the risk of entanglement. It has been praised for creating a marine life haven with fish and crabs having been spotted using the barrier as an artificial habitat and dolphins have been seen swimming alongside it, a clear indication that they are able to locate it.

In addition to these successes, a recent study has shown that 75% of beach visitors questioned said that they were more likely to swim there with it in place and many people have visited to see the marine life it has attracted. Instead of fixating upon the threat that the sharks may pose, the Eco Shark Barrier focuses upon the preservation of both human and marine life, refusing to raise one’s importance higher than the other and it is truly promising in the protection of our marine ecosystems.

Whilst there are currently concerns about the barrier in terms of cost, along with other methods such as lifeguard patrols, capture-tag-release and the electromagnetic shark shield, the positive implications it will have upon sharks and “non-target” wildlife is surely worth it. New South Wales has announced a trial for the barriers after a spate of shark attack fatalities with the hope of reducing both attacks and it’s environmental impact, something which is hoped will continue along the continents coastlines. No animal deserves to suffer a slow and painful death in their own environments and so it’s these advancements in protection that are vital in protecting the future of our ocean habitats.

Something needs to change before the ecosystem does.

Further information regarding “non-target” by catch can be found here.

References

Queensland Government. (2013). Shark Control Programme. Available: https://www.daf.qld.gov.au/fisheries/services/shark-control-program. Last accessed 13th Dec 2015.

Brighten, T. (2015). Disturbing truth behind Australia’s shark nets. Available: https://www.the-newshub.com/environment/disturbing-truth-behind-australias-shark-nets. Last accessed 13th Dec 2015.

Shark Files Queensland. (2015). 84,800 Marine Animals Ensnared and Entangled in the Queensland Shark Control Program . Available: http://www.sharkfilesqueensland.org/blog/84800-marine-animals-ensnared-entangled-in-the-queensland-shark-control-program. Last accessed 13th Dec 2015.

Watson, M. (2015). Dolphins, rays among hundreds of non-targeted animals killed on Queensland shark nets and drum lines, figures show. Available: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-08-25/shark-control-program-dolphins-killed-shark-nets-drum-lines/6719682. Last accessed 13th Dec 2015.

Turnbull, S. (2015). Eco shark barriers proposed for New South Wales create haven for marine life. Available: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-11-13/eco-shark-barriers-proposed-for-new-south-wales-create-haven/6938990. Last accessed 13th Dec 2015.

Banks, N. (2015). Sea Shepherd captures footage of juvenile dolphin caught on drum line in Queensland. Available: http://www.seashepherd.org.au/news-and-commentary/commentary/sea-shepherd-captures-footage-of-juvenile-dolphin-caught-on-drum-line-in-queensland.html. Last accessed 13th Dec 2015.

Eco Shark Barrier. (2015). FAQS. Available: http://www.ecosharkbarrier.com.au/frequentlyaskedquestions/. Last accessed 13th Dec 2015.

Eco Shark Barrier. (2015). About Us. Available: http://www.ecosharkbarrier.com.au/about-us/. Last accessed 13th Dec 2015.

Eco Shark Barrier. (2015). The Product. Available: http://www.ecosharkbarrier.com.au/the-product/. Last accessed 13th Dec 2015.

Eco Shark Barrier. (2015). Why. Available: http://www.ecosharkbarrier.com.au/why/. Last accessed 13th Dec 2015.

Queensland Government. (2015). Research and Development. Available: https://www.daf.qld.gov.au/fisheries/services/shark-control-program/research-and-development. Last accessed 14th Dec 2015.

Queensland Government. (2015). Impact on other marine animals. Available: https://www.daf.qld.gov.au/fisheries/services/shark-control-program/impact-on-other-marine-animals. Last accessed 14th Dec 2015.

Queensland Government. (2015). Shark control equipment and locations. Available: https://www.daf.qld.gov.au/fisheries/services/shark-control-program/shark-control-equipment-and-locations. Last accessed 14th Dec 2015.

Queensland Government. (2015). Marine Animals Release Teams. Available: https://www.daf.qld.gov.au/fisheries/services/shark-control-program/marine-animal-release-teams. Last accessed 14th Dec 2015.

Zaw, Y. (2015). Shark barrier makes swimmers feel safe. Available: https://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/wa/a/20786789/shark-barrier-makes-swimmers-feel-safer/. Last accessed 14th Dec 2015.

Coastal Watch. (2015). NSW Government’s $16 Million High-Tech Shark Solution. Available: http://www.coastalwatch.com/environment/15014/nsw-government-s-16-million-high-tech-shark-solution. Last accessed 14th Dec 2015.

Jones, K. (2015). Making money out of shark attack paranoia. Available: http://www.smh.com.au/small-business/smallbiz-tech/making-money-out-of-shark-attack-paranoia-20151126-gl8lxj.html. Last accessed 14th Dec 2015.

Hope For Rare Porpoises in Mexico- Sea Watch Foundation Newsletter October 2015

 As the small grey dorsal fins gently slice through the calm waters of San Felipe in Mexico, the relief and elation onboard the research ship, the R/V Ocean Starr, is unmistakable. A mere 4 days into a 64 day long survey into the abundance of the critically endangered vaquita population and two have already been spotted by a team of renowned scientists. It was a promising start and provides a glimmer of hope that a rare species can be saved.

 

The vaquita is a small porpoise and the world’s most endangered marine mammal. Found only in the Gulf of California in Mexico, the smallest distribution of any other mammal species, this little cetacean is under imminent threat of extinction with only an estimated 100 remaining. The main threat they are faced with is accidental entanglement in gillnets used by fisherman to catch shrimp as once they become trapped, they are unable to surface and eventually drown. However, this is not a recent issue. Some years ago, Peter Evans of Sea Watch Foundation constructed a letter on behalf of the European Cetacean Society urging the President of Mexico to take urgent action and address the issue of incidental fishing gear. It is something that has been affecting the population for a considerable amount of time and as a result, has caused considerable damage.

 

According to acoustic data collected by research teams between the years 2011 and 2014, there was a 30% per year decline in the number of vaquitas. Likewise, last year an international panel of scientists warned of a decrease of 100 specimens over 2 years and indicated that by 2018, the vaquita could vanish altogether. This shocking information prompted the Mexican government to act quickly in order to try and secure the survival of the species and in April 2015, the President of Mexico Peña Nieto announced an emergency 2 year ban on the use of gillnets in the area known to be frequented by these cetaceans.

 

On the 26th September 2015, “The Vaquita Expedition 2015” was launched by the Mexican government in order to record an estimate of the number of vaquitas at the beginning of the gillnet ban. Lasting 64 days, 13 scientists on board are using both visual and acoustic methods to document the abundance of animals in areas once dominated by nets. The visual team are using 6 pairs of 25 power binoculars known as “big eyes” to survey the distribution of vaquitas between 20 and 50 metres deep up to 6 miles away. It is vital that the equipment is able to see so far away as the porpoises are shy and likely to react to the ship, therefore close observation would be both difficult and inconclusive. Acoustically, devices called CPODs are being used to harmlessly detect the high frequency clicks used by the vaquitas when finding food. 134 of these devices will be deployed in a grid in shallow water where the research ship is unable to go to examine a wider area and build up an optimum amount of information. There is also an area when both acoustic and visual research will be carried out in order to avoid the inexactness of previous survey and a combination of all this information will allow the scientists to build up as precise density estimate as is possible for this very rare cetacean.

 

So far, over the first 20 days of the survey due to end on the 3rd December 2015, 25 vaquitas have been spotted. Whilst some of these may be the same specimens seen on multiple occasions, these are promising observations and prove that the near-extinct cetacean is still surviving. With only one gillnet spotted in the exclusion zone where 700 kilometres of nets were previously used, it also shows how vital the cooperation of the fisherman is to the protection of the species and indeed the importance of the support for those who once relied upon this method of fishing. It is of course crucial to note that the levelling off of or increase in the vaquita population is unlikely to be seen over the course of the next 2 years. Even without the gill-net mortality rates, the time it takes for reproduction would only see a very small growth over this period and so ideally this short term ban will be permanently extended in the future. Nevertheless, in a time when so many of the world’s wild animals are under pressure simply to survive, it is most certainly a welcome step forward in endangered wildlife conservation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

 

 

NOAA Fisheries. (2015). Expedición Internacional Vaquita Marina 2015: Research Summary. Available: https://swfsc.noaa.gov/MMTD-Vaquita2015/. Last accessed 29th Oct 2015.

 

 

NOAA Fisheries. (2015). Expedición Internacional Vaquita Marina 2015: Survey Design. Available: https://swfsc.noaa.gov/textblock.aspx?Division=PRD&ParentMenuId=676&id=20992. Last accessed 29th Oct 2015.

 

NOAA Fisheries. (2015). Expedición Internacional Vaquita Marina 2015: Meet the Scientists. Available: https://swfsc.noaa.gov/textblock.aspx?Division=PRD&ParentMenuId=676&id=21002. Last accessed 29th Oct 2015.

 

NOAA Fisheries. (2015). Expedición Internacional Vaquita Marina 2015: Conservation and Abundance. Available: https://swfsc.noaa.gov/textblock.aspx?Division=PRD&ParentMenuId=676&id=21005. Last accessed 29th Oct 2015.

 

NOAA Fisheries. (2015). Vaquita Overview. Available: https://swfsc.noaa.gov/textblock.aspx?Division=PRD&ParentMenuId=676&id=21081. Last accessed 29th Oct 2015.

 

Rojas-Bracho, L and Taylor, B. (2015). Vaquita sightings on Mexican Expedition inspire hope. Available: https://www.marinemammalscience.org/smm-news/vaquita-sightings-on-mexican-expedition-inspire-hope/. Last accessed 29th Oct 2015.

 

http://www.iucn-csg.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/CIRVA-6-Report-Rev-19-July-2015.pdf

 

AFP. (2015). Mexico hails sightings of near-extinct porpoise. Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/centralamericaandthecaribbean/mexico/11956814/Mexico-hails-sightings-of-near-extinct-porpoise.html. Last accessed 29th Oct 2015.

 

WWF. (). Vaquita. Available: http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/cetaceans/about/vaquita/. Last accessed 29th Oct 2015.

 

 

 

Photo Credits:

 

 

  1. NOAA Fisheries West Coast, (2015), Looking for vaquita [ONLINE]. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nmfs_northwest/21872139895/in/album-72157659101243641/ [Accessed 29 October 15].

 

 

  1. NOAA Fisheries West Coast, (2015), Vaquita survey area 2015 [ONLINE]. Available at: https://   http://www.flickr.com/photos/nmfs_northwest/21724143981/in/album-72157659101243641/ [Accessed 29 October 15].

 

 

  1. Paula Olson, NOAA, (2008), Vaquita6 Olson NOAA [ONLINE]. Available at: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/38/Vaquita6_Olson_NOAA.jpg [Accessed 29 October 15].

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

US Navy Sonar Limitations To Help Save Cetaceans- Sea Watch Foundation Newsletter September 2015

Imagine this. You’re sitting in your house, enjoying a lovely and well deserved meal at your table with your friends and family when all of a sudden you’re overcome by a noise so deafening that you have no other choice but to run. Your head is pounding, you feel dizzy, your body is aching and all you can think of is getting out of there as quick as you can even though you have no idea where you’re going. When you finally escape you find yourself in an unfamiliar place without any of your friends, your family or your food. You’re lost, alone and in agony.

 You are a whale and you are one of thousands facing this ordeal every year due to the use of military sonar and explosives around the world.

In September 2015, the U.S Navy and the National Resources Defence Council came to a federal agreement placing restrictions on the use of military training exercises in primary marine mammal habited environments. The culmination of a 20 year long battle, until it expires in 2018 the new agreement means that the Navy must limit their use of sonar and explosive detonation off the coasts of Southern California and Hawaii; places renowned for their rich diversity of marine wildlife. Whereas in the past, they had the freedom to conduct training exercises at any time of the year, they will now have to cease all activity at times when marine populations are at their most vulnerable to ensure that as few are as affected as possible. Blue whales will no longer find themselves deafened as they use the Californian coast as part of their summer migration and Hawaii’s small and critical population of false killer whales won’t have to endure the agonising pain of sonar sound waves thundering towards them. Clearly, it’s a step in the right direction.

It may only be a very small percentage of the world’s oceans but for those animals likely to have suffered, it will make a significant difference. Whales and dolphins hunt, feed, navigate and escape predators using a form of biological sonar called echolocation and if this is disturbed by military sonar, it really does become a fight for survival. Not only are they at risk of being driven from their natural hunting grounds and migration patterns, they are also at risk of devastating physiological injuries as well. Research into the impact of sonar on cetaceans has revealed that, when exposed to high intensity sound waves many are susceptible to severe afflictions including decompression sickness, internal bleeding , ruptured tissues and in some cases even death. Painful, agonising and unnecessary suffering. The impact of sonar training on cetaceans can be catastrophic.

In 2014, between 5 and 8 beaked whales stranded along the coast of Crete and more recently, in March this year 3 beaked whales beached in Southern Guam. In both cases, sonar training has been confirmed to have occurred nearby. The U.S Navy itself has admitted that around 2000 whales and dolphins were likely to be impacted by their training exercises in Southern California and Hawaii. These are devastatingly high numbers in sensitive waters which, prior to the agreement, had been deemed by the judge overseeing the case as making “no sense given the size of the ocean area involved.” There’s a lot more ocean out there without needing to use vulnerable wildlife hotspots, places where the risk of severe casualties can be minimised and hopefully ended completely.

It might just be the start and there’s still a lot more ocean to protect but the fact that the U.S Navy is starting to recognise that cetaceans cannot simply be considered “collateral damage” is a success in itself. Indeed, they have been carrying out their own research into the effect of sonar on marine life and have apparently spent around $160 million in 2015 alone in doing so. Evidently, the Navy does care about it’s impact and whilst it has taken some time, hopefully this new agreement will result in fewer casualties and more understanding that the price of security does not need to come at the cost of the natural world.

 

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Diving into the Depths of Dolphin Communication

An article written for an online course on Animal Behaviour I am doing at the moment: 

 

“Hello”, “Alright Mate”, “Good to see you”; all ways in which we as humans often greet each other.  Depending upon how well we know someone, who they are and of course the situations we are in, our vocalisations vary.  As the foundation of human language, learnt vocalisation comes so naturally to us that it is sometimes peculiar to think that it’s not a common occurrence within the animal kingdom.

 

The majority of animal species use innate vocalisation in order to convey alerts of danger and other happenings. This means it is ‘genetic’behaviour which accompanies being a member of that particular animal group. A meerkat, for example, knows to be aware of the danger of a snake and to alert others of it’s presence; it does not need to first encounter one to know that it poses a significant threat .There are some species, however, who exhibit behavioural traits that have been shown to have been learnt by a particular animal with the bottle nosed dolphin being an ideal example.

 

In a recent paper published in PNAS, King and Janik focused upon dolphins to examine how the concept of a ‘signature whistle’is exhibited and it’s uses within their lives. A ‘signature whistle’is an aspect of communication created by an individual as a juvenile made up of various vocalisations they encounter. Once formed it is then used as a way of informing others who they are and as a greeting when meeting new individuals becoming a vital aspect of their vocalisation repertoire.With this in mind, it could be thought of as perhaps a human like vocalisation almost akin to they way we  greet others as individuals with their own names.

 

In order test whether the ‘signature whistle’acts in this way, King and Janik focused upon wild bottle nosed dolphins off the East coast of Scotland.  Their whistles were recorded before being  copied and played back to them or they were played unfamiliar and familiar dolphins’vocalisations. From June to August 2001 and May to September 2010, recordings were taken at a depth of 2 metres before being analysed and recorded as synthetic vocalisations. One playback was then played back to each dolphin pod with the boat engine off and when the animals were either socialising or exhibiting non polarised behaviour. This was perhaps due to the fact that as with any species, the likelihood of responding to being called is somewhat diminished when an individual is focused upon something else.

 

The responses to the stimuli revealed that the signature whistle could indeed be classified as a way of dolphins greeting specific individuals. Out of 12 dolphins, 8 responded with the same vocal pattern upon hearing their own call whereas only 2 responded to the familiar pattern and there were 0 responses to the unfamiliar calls. This suggests that, much like human patterns of behaviour, the dolphins responded when they were addressed or another individual recognised the call of a dolphin it knew and so responded to it.

 

King and Janik’s results, however, are not unique as such behaviour has been observed in birds who also have exhibited copying certain sounds to address each other.  Nevertheless, the results are certain to raise the question of why individual dolphins produce a ‘signature whistle’. It could be that not unlike other mammals, they are trying to contact a particular dolphin or maintain a level of understanding within the group structure. This is something which can clearly be observed amongst people indicating a succinct similarity between both species. Either way, it is likely to be a question at the forefront of many behaviourist’s minds and only further exploration of the secretive life of cetaceans can reveal the answer.  

Springy Lambs and Sneaky Squirrels

With it being spring and Easter, I decided to visit a farm last Wednesday to see if I could see some tiny lambs and chicks. The farm, Amelia’s Trust Farm near Barry, was just a short journey away so we set off with the cameras to see what we could see. There were so many lambs it was hard to keep track of them all although I have to admit, my favourites were two that just couldn’t keep their eyes off a crow and continued to chase it whenever it landed in the field. Sadly there were no little chicks just yet but there’s still time for that! There was however, a cross looking cockerel who was so badly behaved attacking people that it ended up being locked in a hen house. There aren’t many animals I’m not a huge fan of and try to avoid but cockerels are up there and to me this proved why!

On Friday, up in Lancashire, we decided to visit Formby National Trust as I’d been there loads as a child and wanted to catch a glimpse of some red squirrels. I’d heard that a few years ago the population there had been decimated due to a disease brought in by grey squirrels so I wasn’t too hopeful that we would see anything due to them still repopulating but I was pleasantly surprised. There was quite a few of them all scrabbling around on the floor searching for snacks and nuts and trying to sneak them past the nosy wood pigeons also pacing the area. They were also leaping around in the trees which, although was quite hard to photograph, definitely was a challenge and very nice to see and something I want to come back to see very soon. Springy Lambs

A Walk in the Woods

Yesterday, whilst Cardiff was finally basking in the sun again we decided to go out for a walk in the woods with JJ the Jack Russell who was visiting from Preston. By the end of the walk he was absolutely shattered, had made friends with a couple of horses and had made sure he’d walked in as much mud as possible!

Breaching Whaling Defences: The End of JARPA II

At incredible speed, the harpoon shoots through the air and roughly embeds itself in the thick blubber of a passing minke whale. Still alive and writhing in agony, the whale is dragged through the crimson stained water towards the Yushin Maru where it will soon be delivered to the “mothership” for scientific investigation and the meat distributed throughout Japan . This is Japan’s whaling programme JARPA II and at last it’s coming to an end.  

Minke WhaleOn Monday 31st March 2014, it was announced that, with a vote of 12-4, the UN’s International Court of Justice had revoked Japan’s whaling licenses in the Antarctic ordering them to cease immediately. It was decided that Japan was openly flouting their international obligations by issuing whaling permits for minke, fin and humpback whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary and that their scientific output, expected from a scientific programme like this, was limited. Whilst it’s technically illegal for nations to whale under the ‘commercial’ flag following the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) 1986 moratorium, some still do either by simply rejecting the proposal or in the case of Japan, establishing a scientific research programme. This has allowed them to kill 3,600 minke whales since 2005 and with barely any results, this is a little suspicious to say the very least.

According to the guidelines of having a scientific permit, it is a requirement for the resulting meat to be used either by selling it or giving it away. Prior to the moratorium, Japan was at the forefront of commercial whaling with the meat considered to be something of a tradition and so it’s hard to believe that they would just cease when told to. However, by sailing under the research flag and trying to convince people that what they have been doing was benefiting the future of the whales, they have been able to continue consuming it without backlash from the IWC. Of course not everybody’s appetite for whale meat has been quashed by the decision; the demand has been in steep decline in recent years with stocks largely unsold and in storage. Perhaps with this in mind, the consumption is not necessarily the driving force at all yet the point still stands- where is the significant research? It’s easy to say that you need to kill whales in order to obtain certain results from life expectancy and toxin exposure to feeding habits and other cetacean characteristics but 10,000 whales later, where is the proof that their deaths have been worth it?

The whalers themselves are regularly seen holding up signs to campaigners stating that they are “weighing Signstomach contents” and “collecting tissue samples” yet in the age of DNA testing, there doesn’t seem to be a place for this method anymore. There is no need to murder whales for the collection of evidence like this- pioneering and harmless methods are being developed and of course there’s no substitute for sighting surveys in terms of tracking and monitoring patterns and behaviour. If scientists suddenly announced that they were going to start culling humans in order to gather information that could be obtained in more humane ways, people would not just allow it. There would be an uprising against them and so why is this not the case for the whales? Yes there are a lot of people who care strongly about the issue and are doing what they can to stop it but there are also a lot of people who remain indifferent. If more people get involved and take a stance, then perhaps there is a chance that pointless whaling will be completely eradicated  once and for all.

The court’s decision has been welcomed by various environmental groups like Sea Shepherd, who have been actively campaigning against the Japanese whaling programme for years. Often seen confronting the whaling fleet in the Antarctic in a bid to stop them harvesting the whales in a designated sanctuary, Sea Shepherd has tirelessly fought against the programme and there is no doubt this news has been welcomed with open arms.

“Though Japan’s unrelenting harpoons have continued to drive many species of whales toward extinction, Sea Shepherd is hopeful that in the wake of the ICJ’s ruling, it is whaling that will be driven into the pages of the history books”

Captain Alex Cornelissen of Sea Shepherd

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Sea Shepherd regularly takes invasive action

Hopefully, this action will send a message to the whalers that this barbaric process will not be tolerated and will discourage them from continuing in the future. They have said that they are “disappointed” by the decision but that they will abide by the ruling but how long that will last is unknown. The passion of the whalers in terms of their defence is clear to see with their response to Sea Shepherd volunteers through the use of an LRAD system, designed to acoustically render people useless. A dangerous piece of equipment that has been even used on a helicopter, the system was used to defend the fleet from intervention and allow them to continue harpooning. This in itself shows the lengths they were willing to go to with out any regard to the lives of the volunteers and so this is perhaps a chance that they won’t accept this decision lying down even if the officials do. Of course what can be guaranteed is that should the whaling begin again, campaigners will be waiting for them.

With all this in mind, the question really is with the decision to stop Japan whaling under their JARPA II programme, will this stop whaling completely? The answer is no. This ban may prevent them hunting in the Antarctic but they are still able to hunt in the northern Pacific, albeit a smaller number of whales. Norway and Iceland also continue to whale on a commercial basis after rejecting the moratorium and this is something Japan could also do at some stage by pulling away from the IWC completely and severing all restrictions and ties. There are also some loopholes that would allow them to continue their scientific whaling if the programme is redesigned but hopefully it won’t come to that and the whales in the sanctuary can avoid that unimaginable pain.

Whaling isn’t just the only issue that faces cetaceans on a daily basis; the low frequencies emitted by ships can cause acoustic masking with not only disorientates the whales but can also mean that they are unable to feed and communicate with each other. There’s no doubt that initially the noise would scare them away but repeated exposure could mean that they think of it more as an annoyance and don’t move away from it. The shipping noise caused by the whaling fleet and, ironically, the campaigners may contribute to the acoustical acceptance; they hear it so often that the don’t move away and are then caught. Of course it’s important to take into consideration that some discomfort is better than brutal murder and so the Sea Shepherd invasive action seems to outweigh this particular con but it’s also important to consider other issues.

Ocean pollution, climate change and accidental by catch are all thing that pose a huge risk to whales and so if these problems are not tackled successfully as well, whales are still going to die a preventable death. The decision to end the JARPA II programme is no doubt a huge step in the protection of cetaceans and a sign that the reception of whaling is changing but with a world where wildlife is constantly under threat, it’s vital that such action is continued.