A New England Aquarium researcher played a key part on an international team that has discovered what it believes to be a new population of the largest animals on Earth.
Every group of blue whales, who can grow to 100 feet long, sings its own unique song. And in a recent paper in the journal Endangered Species Research, the scientists describe a new song, heard from the Arabian Sea coast of Oman and the central and southwest Indian Ocean.
Salvatore Cerchio, director of the African Aquatic Conservation Fund’s Cetacean Program and visiting scientist at the New England Aquarium, first recorded the song in 2017 and knew it was one that had never been described.
“It was quite remarkable to find a whale song in your data that was completely unique, never before reported, and recognize it as a blue whale,” Cerchio said. “To think there was a population out there that no one knew about until 2017 — well, it kind of blows your mind.”
In 2018, he and other researchers created a stir when they reported the finding to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, which was assessing the status of blue whale populations in the Indian Ocean.
Researchers have long known that a unique population of blue whales lives in the northern Indian Ocean but assumed that whales in the Arabian Sea belonged to the same population that has been studied off Sri Lanka and that travels into the southcentral Indian Ocean.
“One of the things this paper shows is what we thought was one population is actually two, each of them smaller than what was originally thought,” said Peter Corkeron, chairman of the Kraus Marine Mammal Conservation Program at the New England Aquarium.
“We have to operate on the idea that they are endangered because the Soviets hunted them nearly to extinction in the 1960s. It was illegal, but they did it for meal and for oil,” Corkeron said. “How is it that we can treat such magnificent animals like this? What does it say about us if we let them disappear?”
Blue whale populations have only begun to recover in recent decades after a global moratorium on commercial whaling, Cerchio said, but they face newer challenges of expanding petroleum and fishing industries in the region.
“We’re hoping this discovery will raise the profile of blue whales because there needs to be more research and actions taken to protect them,” Cerchio said. “These are extraordinary animals that are at our mercy in a lot of ways. And the task for us is to learn how to become better stewards of them.”
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