Satellite transmitters reveal the impact of climate change on whales

Posted by Ashna Brijmohun on 8 November 2021

Researchers of the mammal research institute (MRI) whale unit have used satellite transmitters to track the migration and behaviour of Southern right whales. Their research results have shown the impact of climate change on this subspecies.

Southern right whale and calf. Credit: Anton Crone

The University of Pretoria’s whale unit at the MRI have been monitoring the population of Southern right whales on South Africa’s coast for 42 years. Their research focuses on the migration, reproduction, and body condition of the Southern right whale. The researchers have determined a link between the whale’s diet and their migration and calving. Their research revealed that the amount of food a female eats during the feeding season directly impacts their success in reproduction and migration.

This October, the unit conducted their 42nd annual survey of Southern right whales from Nature’s Valley to Muizenberg. The data illustrated 382 females and calves making up 191 pairs, and 32 single adult whales also known as ‘unaccompanied adults’. This brings the total number of Southern right whales on South Africa’s coast to 414.

While the number of female-calf pairs is higher than the numbers recorded in both 2019 and 2020, researchers insist that this number is still too low. The amount of single Southern right whales identified is also very low, inferring that whales without calves are no longer participating in the migration to South Africa’s coast.

The low count of Southern right whales on South Africa’s coast indicates a decrease in food availability and possible depleting feeding grounds because of climate change. The satellite tags on the southern right whales have proven to be effective in observing the whale population, therefore allowing researchers to understand and assist the delicate whale species.

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