Zoo Atlanta’s Panda Twins Celebrate Milestone

Flocking Fans and Changing Times

The giant panda cubs at Zoo Atlanta celebrated their first birthday in July. Fans from around the country flocked to see them, staking out their spots near the exhibit more than an hour before the party began. Guests wearing bedazzled panda shirts chattered about how long they had driven for the occasion, some coming from the nation’s capital, some local members of the zoo, and others from as far away as California.

The two little girls they all gathered to see, Mei Lun and Mei Huan, are the first surviving set of giant panda twins ever born in the United States. Overall, they are the fourth and fifth cubs born to Zoo Atlanta’s seventeen year old Lun Lun, one of the most successful mothers of her species in the country.

Mei Lun

Mei Lun

Mei Huan

Mei Huan

Much has changed since Lun Lun had her first cub in 2006. At the time, the birth was a relative surprise, but as technology and our general understanding of this species has advanced through research carried out by facilities like Zoo Atlanta, so have the medical and husbandry (to be defined in a future article) practices. The zoo staff works to monitor progesterone levels using urinalysis, identifying when the female is accepting to the male. While normally solitary animals, when she shows physical and behavioral signs of being ready to mate, Lun Lun and Yang Yang, the largest male Giant Panda in the United States, are placed on exhibit together.

For just a few days, the two cohabitate, and during this time, the zoo staff may also artificially inseminate Lun Lun to ensure a pregnancy. For Giant Pandas, each pregnancy brings new hope for the species which is listed as endangered on the IUCN’s red list. With a decreasing population of only 1,600 individuals left in the wild, there are more visitors to Zoo Atlanta each day than there are pandas left in their natural environment.

The First Year

Just a couple of days before the twins’ birth, Lun Lun participated in an ultrasound, one of the voluntary behaviors that her keepers have trained often with sugar cane rewards, allowing staff members to confirm that the big day was approaching. On July 15, just after 6:20pm, Lun Lun gave birth to two hairless, deaf, and blind cubs that were each no larger than a human’s hand. In the wild, if twins are born, the mother panda generally chooses only one to raise, but, at Zoo Atlanta, the team sprang into action.

Newborn pandas are helpless at birth. In fact, not only are they unable to see, hear, or walk, but their bodies also lack the ability to regulate their own temperature and are around nine hundred times smaller than their mother! Therefore, during the first several months of life, the mother panda cannot take her attention away from her cub. About 80% of her time will be entirely dedicated to nursing, grooming, or just holding her cub. That’s some pretty intensive care!

In order to give Lun Lun the ability to focus on one daughter at a time, as well as increase the chances of survival for both cubs, Zoo Atlanta staff members took care of one newborn, keeping her warm in an incubator, while their mother took care of the other. Until they started walking on their own, the keepers switched cubs every couple of hours to make sure that Lun Lun bonded with both of her offspring.

During most of this time, the staff had not yet bestowed names on the cubs, simply referring to them as Cub A and Cub B. According to Chinese tradition, good luck is given to those named on their 100th day of life, and so the zoo held off on naming them until that time. Prior to Zoo Atlanta’s naming ceremony, thousands took part in a public online poll, voting on idioms that represented the two little bears. After the tallies were counted, the Chinese government approved the winning phrase, “Mei Lun Mei Huan”, which translates to “something indescribably beautiful and magnificent”. The twin girls share the phrase, each taking one half as their name.

Baby photos detail the twins’ milestones.

Baby photos detail the twins’ milestones.

Just as celebrators poured into the zoo that day, the same can be said of the festive day in July when Mei Lun and Mei Huan turned one year old. Their keepers took the time to share the panda girls’ first days with visitors via television screens and posters displaying baby photos from the past year. Inside the exhibit, they set out ‘birthday presents’ in the form of colorful cardboard boxes with treats inside, which mother Lun Lun promptly opened and ate. The twins eventually got the idea and played along.

The celebration has begun!

The celebration has begun!

Unaware of the pandamonium (sorry for the pun, but I had to do it) they have created, Mei Lun and Mei Huan spent their day sleeping, climbing, and playing as their mother kept a watchful eye while chowing down on bamboo. They will wean from their mother when they are around a year and a half old, as did their three siblings before them. And, like their siblings before them, they will eventually board an airplane and make the trip around the world to China’s Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding where they will, hopefully, become mothers and have cubs of their own.

Looking Forward

While Zoo Atlanta is one of only four zoos in the country that house and breed giant pandas in collaboration with the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, their efforts to preserve this species doesn’t end there.

One of the greatest threats that this species faces is habitat destruction and loss. Roughly forty percent of appropriate habitat for pandas lies in nature reserves in three provinces in China. The Chinese government has begun to add almost 70,000 planned square miles to the reserve system in an attempt to help their national treasure’s population, and funds from Zoo Atlanta support eight different nature reserves.

In fact, Zoo Atlanta has been working with the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding since the early 1990’s, assisting in research that focuses on mothers and cubs. The panda research and breeding program is Zoo Atlanta’s most expensive conservation project.

As this zoo in Georgia has demonstrated, regardless of the distance between you and the giant panda’s homeland, there are actions that you can take to help them. One of the ways to do that is by adopting a panda. Of course, this is a symbolic adoption. You wouldn’t want one of these bears in your own house- the estimated cost for caring for one of these animals totals at around $10,000 a year! Your donation contributes to conservation projects at Zoo Atlanta and across the world! For a limited time, you can actually sponsor Mei Lun and Mei Huan specifically! Another way to help pandas is by visiting Zoo Atlanta and other facilities that support or house this rare bear. Every time you visit a zoo, you support research and conservation efforts like the one you’ve read about today.

Zoo Atlanta continues to look forward to a bright future for giant pandas. The staff is currently preparing for Lun Lun’s next pregnancy and the celebrity twins’ next steps in life. Keep track of the panda family’s updates through the Zoo Atlanta Panda Blog, written by the keepers who work with these bears every day.

Congratulations to the team for all of their hard work over the past year. And, of course, happy birthday Mei Lun and Mei Huan! Here’s to many more!

Mei Huan eyes one of the birthday presents.

Mei Huan eyes one of the birthday presents.

We can’t say it enough- Thank you for visiting Zoos Are Important!

Learning Links:

 Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding

Panda International

Highlights of the Twins’ First Year

Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo Strives to Ensure the Future of the Florida Manatee

In Need of Rescue

Most people who do not live in Florida, have never seen a Florida manatee. When, or if they do, many question what the robust creature might be: A walrus without tusks, maybe a manta ray, or a blimp (yes, really).

An average size of 10 feet long and roughly 1,500 pounds, these gentle marine mammals are known to be slow-moving herbivores that inhabit both salt and freshwater. Occasionally seen as far north as Massachusetts, and as far west as Texas, the majority of manatee sightings occur in the Sunshine State.

While these animals have no natural predators, roughly half of the deaths that occur in the adult population are human-related, primarily the result of watercraft collisions. Listed as an endangered species, several institutions work in an attempt to preserve this animal’s natural habitat, to educate people about the threats they face, and to rescue and rehabilitate injured or sick individuals.

Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo is the only non-profit manatee hospital in the world specifically dedicated to the care of this species and is one of only three facilities accredited for the critical care and rehabilitation of injured or ill manatees or orphaned/abandoned calves.

 

A rescued manatee comes to the surface.

 

The Zoo’s Efforts

Caring for any animal is an around the clock job. Manatees are no different. Depending on the injury and the necessary medical treatment that an individual needs, the zoo’s staff can perform several procedures a day per animal. Treatment ranges from skin exfoliation, to surgery, to bandaging a wound, to taking x-rays and even bottle-feeding.

One of the manatees currently being cared for at the zoo was rescued at just a few weeks old. Orphaned for an unknown reason, the little male called Jobin only weighed about 55lbs upon arrival but began putting on weight rapidly thanks to the manatee milk formula. Manatees are mammals and nurse their young, but, in this case, with no mother nearby, the manatee caretakers stepped in as surrogates, providing a bottle of thick milk specially made for these instances.

Several aspects of the manatee exhibit and hospital are specially designed for similar rehabilitation scenarios. The manatee hospital is equipped with rising floor technology, meaning that the area in which some of the above procedures take place, the patient can be “dry docked”. These types of floors are sometimes referred to as “false bottoms” and rise completely to the surface of the water, supporting the animal’s weight and the team of professionals attempting to help it. This method is considered the safest for the animal and the least stress-producing overall.

When the procedure is finished, the floor is slowly lowered, easing the animal back into its aquatic world. There, the manatee can return to its typical activities of sleeping, swimming, and eating.

Big Expenses and New Initiatives

Eating is a big part of a manatee’s day and a big part of the zoo’s budget. Because a healthy manatee can consume roughly ten percent of its body weight in vegetation every day, that really adds up for the Lowry Park Zoo! In fact, the manatees are the most expensive animal in the park to feed, and that includes their close cousins, the elephants.

Depending on how many individuals are in their care, the zoo’s manatee population goes through fifteen to upwards of fifty cases of lettuce each day, adding up to several tons per week!

 

A rescued manatee munches on romaine lettuce.

A rescued manatee munches on romaine lettuce.

Along with the city of Tampa, the Lowry Park Zoo has begun a new pilot program in which they harvest vegetation from nearby reservoirs. Not only does this offset some of the costs that the zoo incurs, but it also helps the local environment because the two plant species harvested twice a week, hydrilla and hyacinth, are both invasive species in the state of Florida. This means that these plants are not native to the area, but rather introduced, with the unfortunate potential to cause economic and/or ecological harm.

Luckily, Florida manatees seem to find these two plants particularly appetizing, and, in the wild, an adult manatee can consume roughly one hundred to two hundred pounds of these hyacinth and hydrilla per day, keeping the growth of these weeds at bay. This is one of the reasons that manatees considered to be valuable within the ecosystem. Without the Florida manatee to consume these plants, they would overrun the waterways, obstructing the flow of water, hindering boat traffic, and potentially impeding animals’ movement through the environment.

Making a Difference

Although the Florida manatee is listed as endangered on the IUCN’s red list, there is still hope for these creatures. With the help of facilities like the Lowry Park Zoo, who rescues, rehabilitates, and returns to the wild manatees brought back to health, the population has increased over the last twenty years. In 1991, when the zoo’s manatee hospital opened its doors for the first time, less than 1,500 individuals were spotted along the east and west coasts of Florida. However, in the most recent aerial survey in January 2014, researchers counted almost five thousand individuals.

Some of the manatees in the care of the Lowry Park Zoo spend twelve to eighteen months being rehabilitated. Once the zoo staff and officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who coordinate the rescues and returns of manatees, deem the animal “medically clear”, the team can properly prepare the animal for return to its natural environment. This is the hope for little Jobin, who is rapidly becoming big Jobin! According to the zoo, he is on track to be returned to his native waters this coming winter.

Help at Home

Rescuing, rehabilitating, and eventually returning manatees to the wild costs the Lowry Park Zoo about one million dollars every year. Being that this project is a non-profit endeavor, the zoo relies heavily on the public’s support. One of the ways that you can help is by donating to the zoo and becoming a part of the “Manatee Match” initiative. For every two dollars donated, one dollar is matched by the Tampa residents Marylou and Jim Bailey as the zoo works to make improvements to the David A. Straz, Jr Manatee Hospital, the zoo’s signature conservation campaign.

 

You can donate online... Or at the zoo!

You can donate online… Or at the zoo!

Every little bit helps!

Every little bit helps!

 

Habits that you practice at home can make a difference for these animals too, especially if you live anywhere near this animal’s natural habitat. Make sure that if you are boating, you are abiding by posted signs and keeping an eye out for the grey back and snouts of manatees. And if you are fishing, properly dispose of or recycle monofilament line, and if you are lucky enough to see one of these animals, abide by the “Look, Don’t Touch” rule in order to avoid disturbing the animal.

You can even download this free app that allows you to log your sighting which helps the Save Manatee Club track manatees.

Another way to help? Educate yourself and your friends using the links at the bottom of the page. You can also visit the Lowry Park Zoo for more information and maybe even enjoy an up close encounter with one of these creatures. Plan in advance to be there during November for the zoo’s celebration of Manatee Awareness Month and become one of the one million guests that annually discover the next steps we can all take to help conserve the Florida Manatee population.

Thank you for visiting Zoos Are Important!

Learning Links:

Video of a Lowry Park manatee return

Lowry Park Zoo professionals talk about the rehabilitation process

Lowry Park’s Manatee Bio

Save the Manatee Club’s Website

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

The California Condor Clings to Survival with the Help of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

From One Bird to the Whole Species

The first California condor to reside at the San Diego Safari Park was a rescued animal with a crippled wing. That particular individual lived out the rest of its days at the park starting in 1929. Over the years, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has worked extensively to perfect its techniques in caring for these animals, becoming a leader in one of the most impressive conservation projects ever attempted in the United States.

In 1982, the California condor species was struggling to survive, and that is the mild way to put it. With just twenty-seven individuals left in the world, the species was in crisis. When the government of the United States of America gave the go-ahead to begin a propagation initiative to try to save the species, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, being no stranger to these birds due to its history in caring for them and its location in the middle of their natural homeland, constructed six free-flight enclosures as part of this species’ recovery program.

The California Condor took the first step toward a second chance at the end of March in 1983 when Sisquoc, the first chick to hatch in a zoo, emerged from his shell, and by 1987, the last known wild condor was captured with the intention of breeding and reintroducing the species back into the wild.

With the entire population of California Condors distributed between the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Zoo, the species was officially extinct in the wild.

A California Condor atop its perch at the San Diego Zoo.

A California Condor atop its perch at the San Diego Zoo.

Overcoming Obstacles

Even with the success of Sisquoc’s hatching, no one knew if the captive breeding program would work, making the decision to capture all of the remaining birds controversial. Slow to mature, California Condors do not reach breeding age until they are between six and seven years old. Even so, once they do breed, the females usually lay just a single egg at a time. And, on top of the low clutch count, they only lay that one egg every one to two years.

Progress was sure to be slow.

At the breeding facilities in California, where all of the condors were held, a new strategy was put into place. When a female laid an egg, personnel removed the egg from the nest, instinctively or hormonally causing the female to lay a second egg, and, sometimes, even a third. The “extra” eggs were incubated and raised by the staff members devoted to seeing this species’ survival. Overcoming this obstacle was just one challenge the staff faced.

Many species of birds, including California condors, have a cognitive ability called “imprinting” in which a young individual will bond with its caretakers. Naturally, a chick’s caretakers are most often its parents, and therefore, imprinting is a survival skill. But, in this environment, in which many of the chicks were raised by humans with the intention of someday being released into the wild, imprinting could become a detriment. After all, the someday-released animals could not be flocking to hiking humans in search of food or company. Therefore, traditional hand raising was not an option.

Instead, another technique was developed in order to prevent this from occurring. Hand puppets molded in the shape of mature condor heads were worn by the staff members as they fed and cared for the chicks. To learn important social skills, they were introduced to adult condors and played tapes of condors’ vocalizations in hopes that would aid in development.

 

A New Beginning. A Bright Future.

The true test of the entire program’s success came in early 1992, when the first captive-bred California condors were released into the January sky. The species had been extinct in the wild for roughly five years, and never before had a conservation project so large been undertaken.

Because individual condors tend to look similar, especially at a distance, each bird was fitted with a number attached to their wings for easy identification and a transmitter for tracking and monitoring. Over the next several years, more condors were released into different areas across California, with others released in Arizona and Mexico. Those individuals began to thrive, even breeding on their own in their natural environment.

In fact, as of May 2013, the total population of California Condors was up to four hundred thirty five individuals! That’s a long way from the twenty-seven birds counted just thirty years before. In fact, even Sisquoc continues to help his species recover as he has bonded with a female named Shatash, and the two birds have become a successful breeding pair, contributing to the one hundred sixty five chicks hatched at the San Diego Zoo.

Be a Part of the Success

Each year, more condors are bred and released by zoos and other facilities, and the population continues to increase, but this story of survival and conservation is far from over. The species is still labeled as critically endangered on the IUCN red list. While the recovery of the California Condor has begun through the efforts of professionals from the San Diego Zoo and other partner organizations, they need our help too.

One of the most dangerous threats these animals face is lead poisoning. Because condors feed on carrion, a term that refers to already-dead animals, they can sometimes ingest lead-tainted meat and even entire bullets, leading to the poisoning of their systems. Lead poisoning unfortunately causes paralysis in the digestive tract, killing the animal slowly through starvation. So, if you hunt, be sure to use non-lead ammunition to help prevent the risk of poisoning of scavengers like the California Condor.

Another simple and fun solution? Continue to visit places like the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, as well as other facilities, dedicated to the future of this amazing animal. Your admission fee helps pay for education and conservation efforts!

Want to learn more about the California Condor? Check out these links below! And, thanks for visiting Zoos Are Important!

Learning Links:
San Diego Zoo’s California Condor Live Cam
San Diego California Condor Blog

Georgia Aquarium Paves the Way in Understanding Whale Sharks

A Piece of Ocean in a Landlocked City

The Georgia Aquarium, the largest aquarium of its kind in the world, opened its doors in late 2005 as a gift to the people of Atlanta from the co-founder of Home Depot, Bernard “Bernie” Marcus. Determined to bring the ocean 300 miles inland to the metropolis capital of this southern state in which his company originated, Marcus donated 250 million dollars to the venture, declaring that this facility would educate visitors of all ages about the animal world, promoting “stewardship in conservation”.

Quickly becoming one of Atlanta’s most popular attractions, the Georgia Aquarium is the only facility in the western hemisphere to house whale sharks. The largest fish in the ocean, whale sharks can grow to be over thirty feet long and weigh roughly twenty tons, and the Georgia Aquarium’s Ocean Voyager exhibit boasts four of these animals.

Dinner Is Served

While imposing in size, this animal is a filter feeder, meaning that it scoops small fish and plankton, but not much else is on the menu. In fact, though these animals’ mouths can be up to four feet wide, the size and shape of their esophagus inhibits them from swallowing anything larger than a quarter.

Open Wide!

Open Wide!

These feeding restrictions and habits have forced the aquarists at the aquarium to implement some rather unique techniques when lunchtime rolls around. The sharks’ caretakers cannot simply toss buckets of food into the water and cross their fingers that each individual gets its share. Every ounce of food for each animal is calculated every day and is prepared with the same accuracy in cleanliness that your food is in a restaurant. The USDA even evaluates and inspects the kitchen, which, in the zoological world, is called a commissary.

The sharks also lack the ability to sit in front of the aquarists with its head tilted upwards waiting for an afternoon snack. Whale sharks must constantly be on the move as it is this movement that forces water into their mouths and over their gills, giving them the ability to breathe.

Being that the sharks cannot be stationary, at feeding time, the aquarists climb into inflatable boats and use what could be described as shark-sized spoons to deliver a mixture of krill, shrimp, and nutrient-rich gel to each shark as it swims alongside. The hardworking aquarists use a cable or line system to pull themselves, the food mixture, the very large utensil, and, of course, the boat across the exhibit (which is about as long as a football field). Alice, Trixie, Yushan, and Taroko, the four whale sharks at the aquarium have been trained to follow their own boats, each only being fed from a specific “lane”. This activity occurs several times a day and, in total, the whale sharks are offered nearly twenty thousand pounds of food each year!

View from above the Ocean Voyager exhibit.  Look closely to see the feeding boats and cables.

View from above the Ocean Voyager exhibit.
Look closely to see the feeding boats and cables.

Researching Further

Not only does each shark get a specific diet, tailored just for them, but for each animal in its care, the Georgia Aquarium develops a healthcare plan to ensure their residents’ wellbeing. For the whale sharks, that means a variety of data collections, including behavior analysis, body measurements, and blood draws.

Because the Georgia Aquarium is in the unique position of being one of the only aquariums to care for and study these animals (the only one outside of Asia), it has the opportunity to research and discover many “firsts” that help us learn more about the specifics of this species.

For example, it was the first in the world to study and assess the biochemistry of whale sharks. By comparing the serums of healthy animals to those of unhealthy animals, researchers from the Georgia Aquarium were able to determine that certain markers in a whale shark’s blood could indicate its general health. Implementing a science known as metabolomics, which involves identifying substances necessary for metabolism, and using advanced technology such as a mass spectrometer, the researchers discovered that the metabolite homarine, as well as twenty-five more compounds, was a meaningful indicator in evaluating the health of a whale shark.

Now, that’s a lot of aquarist/biologist/shark-expert jargon (and, if you understood, feel free to read more about it here), but basically, what that means is that, not only does this information assist those who work with these animals every day, but it also has the ability to aid the scientific community in the field as they continue the attempt to conserve this species.

Listed as vulnerable on the IUCN’s red list, whale sharks are still hunted in some parts of the world. The Georgia Aquarium acquired its four sharks from Taiwan, a country that, at one time, killed sixty whale sharks in one year, but has now reduced that figure to zero. The government of Taiwan has since partnered with the Georgia Aquarium in hopes of leading as an example for other countries to follow suit in whale shark conservation.

A whale shark cruises near the surface of the water.

A whale shark cruises near the surface of the water.

Conducting research on whale sharks in the wild is no easy task. The whale shark population continues to trend downward and scientists still know very little about their ecology, including growth rates, longevity, and migration patterns. The Georgia Aquarium is not only doing research on property, where the Ocean Voyager exhibit provides the opportunity to observe these animals as researchers learn about their growth rates, age at maturity, and behavioral tendencies, but also in the field, as they have become official partners with Project Domino, an organization that uses satellite tags to track individual sharks. Early studies have shown that one individual traveled over eight thousand miles, a journey that took more than three years to complete.

Let’s Do Our Part!

If you are interested in the Georgia Aquarium and their research projects revolving around whale sharks, there are a couple ways you can help. The Georgia Aquarium, which is a 501c3 nonprofit organization, relies on the public’s support through donations and attendance. So, one way to help is to go and witness these animals up close. You can even learn about these animals from a diver while he/she is inside the exhibit!

A diver utilizes a specially designed mask to communicate with the audience from inside the Ocean Voyager exhibit as a whale shark swims overhead.

A diver utilizes a specially designed mask to communicate
with the audience from inside the Ocean Voyager exhibit as a whale
shark swims overhead.

But, there are even more immersive ways to learn! If standing outside the habitat still feels too far away, you can get even closer by snorkeling or scuba diving inside the exhibit.

Thank you for being interested in whale shark research, of which so much could not have been conducted without the help and expertise of the Georgia Aquarium.

And, of course, thank you for visiting Zoos Are Important!

Learning Links:

Georgia Aquarium’s Whale Shark Research

Whale Shark Guide

Georgia Aquarium’s Research Team Studying in Mexico

 

As Guests Watch Whales, The New England Aquarium Catalogs

What’s In a Name

The New England Aquarium, nestled up against the Boston harbor, provides visitors with a unique opportunity to see the facility’s resident creatures like fur seals (including some that were rescued!), bonnethead sharks, and little blue penguins, and, with a separate ticket, some rather large animals that call the waters off Massachusetts home for just a few months each year.

Guests who step aboard one of the whale watching catamarans named Cetacea, Aurora, or Asteria, take a trip to the Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary where marine mammals abound. Finback whales, minke whales, and humpback whales are commonly sighted, and, while they are not considered the “main attraction”, it is also possible to see Atlantic white-sided dolphins, pilot whales, or harbor seals.

As you snap pictures in awe, the aquarium’s research team is on the third deck, pointing out where to look for the animals next and explaining the behavioral tendencies of that particular species to the spectators via a microphone. They also take the opportunity to record the behaviors the animals demonstrate on that particular day, like lunge feeding, tail lobbing, or breaching, as well as which individual animals are sighted.

Like a human’s fingerprint, or a zebra’s stripes, every whale has an identifying feature. For example, each humpback whale has a unique pattern on its fluke, or tail. Scientists around the world use these patterns to track the animals as their migration routes can cover thousands of miles. The same individuals that the New England Aquarium team logs in the summer may be sighted all the way down in the Caribbean Sea, where the females give birth during the winter.

Pleats' Flukes

Pleats’ Flukes

Milkweed's Flukes

Milkweed’s Flukes

Wizard's Flukes

Wizard’s Flukes

Each animal is labelled in the catalog with a number, but the researchers tend to call them by name. Among others, individual whales named Pleats, Milkweed, Echo, and Wizard made appearances on the day that we boarded. We also had the opportunity to see the months old calves that belong to the latter three.

Those calves are documented, just as their mothers are, and will eventually earn names too. According to the researchers introducing these animals to us that day, there are a variety of ways that a whale earns its name. Often times, it is because of a marking along its body. Echo, for example, has several lines on her fluke that look like illustrated sonar pings ‘echoing’ off of an object.

Every so often, the whale is named after a person. Right whale 1158 is referred to as ‘Bud’ in honor of the New England Aquarium’s CEO after nearly a decade’s worth of service in the position.

Benefits of Cataloging

Just as humpback whales do, right whales also migrate. One of the rarest species of marine mammal, with only about five hundred individuals left in the world, right whales have been the subject of extensive research conducted by the New England Aquarium. Rather than identify them by their flukes, naturalists look at the white patches that form on their heads. These ‘callosities’ (pronounced kah-laus’-uh-tees) give the appearance of being white because of parasites which highlight patches of the animal around their face, lips, and eyes. Each pattern is different, and, in general, stays relatively the same throughout the animal’s lifetime.

Scientists track the individuals from Maine down the east coast to Florida. Tracking their migration path could prove instrumental in preserving the species. Almost fifty percent of known right whale deaths are human related, the most prevalent being vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglement. By mapping where the whales go and the route they take to get there, the New England Aquarium works with the shipping industry to prevent fatal strikes to these animals.

The scarring on Pleats' back is from an encounter with a boat’s propeller.

The scarring on Pleats’ back is from an encounter with a boat’s propeller.

Given their research about the migratory and assembly patterns of right whales, the Aquarium has been able to make suggestions in the past as to the benefits of relocating shipping lanes that dissected important feeding grounds for these animals.

Based on information collected by research teams, like that connected to the New England Aquarium, scientists predicted that without restrictions to ocean-going vessels, the right whale species may never be able to recover from its low numbers. In 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) implemented a temporary rule which imposed a speed limit on ships traveling within certain areas that coincided with the range of right whales along the east coast.

Initial estimations indicated that ship strikes to right whales by eighty to ninety percent. As time went on, the speed limit seemed to be effective, as evidenced by the fact that, since the rule went into place, there had been no right whale deaths caused by ship strikes in these designated locations.

This past December, NOAA issued a statement declaring that the rule protecting right whales from lethal ship strikes was no longer ‘temporary’. The New England Aquarium’s research team celebrated this victory, with research assistant Marianna H. writing, the “removal of these speed restrictions would have been taking several steps backwards. Fortunately, the rule now exists in perpetuity!!”

Continuing Conservation

(Above is a video of the New England Aquarium’s Research Team sampling right whales’ exhales. Please note that this is not a part of a whale watching tour and that, without specific permits, it is illegal to be this close to these animals.)

The New England Aquarium’s involvement with whales, right whales in particular, is their longest running conservation program. Whether their method of transportation is of the sky or sea, they continue to photograph and log identifying details as well as track these animals as they make their annual journey along the eastern coast of the United States.

You have a chance to assist them by sponsoring a right whale and supporting legislation that looks to protect whales’ futures. You can also try your hand as a research assistant by playing this ‘matching game’ on the New England Aquarium’s website.

Remember too that if you are out boating where any marine life may be present, you are sharing those waters. Keep a slow speed, an eye on the surface for any activity, and remember that the animal has the right of way.

Check out the most recent right whale news by reading the New England Aquarium’s right whale blog written by research assistants and full of pictures of these amazing animals. If you are curious about the whales that are sighted and what behaviors whale watchers are seeing, check out the New England Aquarium’s whale watching blog. And, if you are interested in taking a trip on one of the Aquarium’s catamarans and viewing these whales, visit their website for details.

Don’t forget to share your experiences and pictures with us on our Facebook page, that’s where we posted ours!

Thank you for visiting Zoos Are Important!

Learning Links:

New England Aquarium’s Right Whale Conservation

North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium

NOAA’s Humpback Whale Bio

NOAA’s Right Whale Bio