That’s it, the marathon of presentations is over! The 22nd Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, held in Halifax from October 23 to 27, covered a broad range of topics concerning a multitude of species, from sea otters to blue whales.
Five days of conferences is tough. Fortunately, guest speakers – most of whom were biologists, but also veterinarians, geographers, engineers and science communicators – had a great sense of humour. Cute lecture titles (e.g. “Two note samba: Clustering and classification of North Pacific fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) notes and songs”, by Frederick Archer or “Staying alive: Evaluating long-term success of small cetacean interventions in southwest Florida”, by Katherine McHugh, whose visual presentation featured a Bee Gees disco theme). Hilarious slides. Tongue-in-cheek comments. I did not expect to laugh so much at a scientific presentation.
What I take away from this conference week is the heartfelt cry of so many researchers for their favourite species: North Atlantic right whales, vaquitas, humpbacks, freshwater cetaceans, fin whales, etc. The survival of such species will not be easy: it requires coordinated involvement at the local and international levels, compromises, “reinvention” efforts by industries (fisheries, marine, energy, tourism, etc.), and above all, these actions must be taken quickly.
But what I will especially remember is the vitality of the marine biology field. The creativity of the research topics and the resourcefulness used to go about such resource made an impression on me. Marine mammals are truly in good hands with this vibrant and dynamic science.
What did my colleagues in the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) think? I’ll give them the floor.
Robert Michaud, scientific director: The presentation by Per J. Palsbøll was particularly interesting to me. A few decades after the end of whaling, we are finally seeing humpback whale populations recovering in all of the world’s oceans. Some populations might find themselves again threatened with extinction, only this time by other populations of the same species.
Per Palsbøl explained that the emigration of Caribbean humpbacks, which are recovering from hunting faster than the Cape Verde population off West Africa, is progressively diluting the gene pool of this population. More than 50 years after the end of whaling, its effects are still being felt on the humpback population of Cape Verde and we could be witnessing their genetic extinction.
Josiane Cabana, call centre coordinator for Marine Mammal Emergencies: It was a week in which there was a strong focus on awareness of the need for urgent action. The situation of the vaquita, even if I had already heard of it, really hit me. It was by talking to Dr. Thomas A. Jefferson, a leading researcher of this elusive species, that I realized the direness of the situation. When it was discovered about fifty years ago, the vaquita was already considered threatened. Fifteen years ago, there were about 600. Today, there are believed to be just 19. This whale, the most threatened of the world, is declining due to bycatch in illegal fishing gear in the northern reaches of Mexico’s Gulf of California.
“Wait no longer to act for belugas! We don’t have decades ahead of us, we must act before it is too late,” was the wise advice that Dr. Jefferson gave us. Such words are echoed by Randall Reeves, pioneer in the field of marine mammal science, who closed the Conference with a depressing overview of species that are on the brink of extinction. One sentence undoubtedly sums up the week: “It’s time to act”.
Michel Moisan, chief technician: The right whale was at the heart of this week’s presentations. I particularly appreciated Katherine Gavrilchuk’s approach in her presentation “Predicting suitable foraging habitat for North Atlantic right whales in eastern Canada using a bioenergetics approach”, which looks toward the future. Her ongoing study looks at surveys of copepods (the favourite prey of right whales) to better understand the movements of these whales. Copepod aggregations will also be cross-referenced with shipping traffic and fisheries maps in order to effectively target the most sensitive zones for conservation. This should enable us to better predict where the whales will be and how best to protect them.
Timothée Perrero, senior research assistant: Social organization is a structuring parameter in several species of cetaceans, especially toothed whales such as killer whales, sperm whales and belugas. In baleen whales, such a high degree of socialization is not as well known. Christian Ramp of the Mingan Island Cetacean Study is interested in fin whales, which we know can team up to collaborate on feeding strategies.
By characterizing the social networks of the different groups of fin whales encountered between 2004 and 2010 in the St. Lawrence River, he noticed that there was a strong association bias toward males which, according to him, might be attributable to competition between males for females in the context of a preamble to reproduction. Moreover, their analyses showed that the females present in these groups of males were often cows with high reproductive success. All this information is extracted from the life stories of these animals derived from photo-identification and biopsies. Fin whales might not be the loners we take them for after all!
Marie-Hélène D’Arcy, senior research assistant: Michael Noad, one of the leading researchers in humpback whale acoustics off the east coast of Australia, offered us a dynamic and rather humorous presentation entitled “To sing or not to sing? That is the (proximate) question.” He used small sketches of whales to show us how male humpbacks decide whether or not to sing.
Analyses by Noad and his team revealed that if there was another male within a 5-kilometre radius, the male wishing to court a female would not sing. Rather, he prefers to keep quiet in order to prevent the other male from venturing too close to the female, thus avoiding confrontation and useless fighting.
Mélissa Tremblay, senior research assistant: What interested me the most in this week was the discoveries in “behavioural ecology”, especially for small marine mammals such as dolphins. In this study, researchers observed that two dolphin species associated to help each other find food or protect themselves from predators. Previously, several studies have shown that individuals from the same dolphin population will use the rubbing of the pectoral fins to identify themselves, remove dead skin or simply generate pleasant sensations. What surprised me the most was that this study highlighted the interactions between two different dolphin species and that they were able to demonstrate that the individuals of these two species, during associations, will also use the pectoral fins to say “hello” and recognize themselves.
To travel through the abstracts: the scientific programm