UAB in Antarctica
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James McClintock, Ph.D.
Mission Co-Investigator

Whale Song

Journal By J McClintock

Posted On 4/8/2004 9:13:19 PM

Bill, Dan and I comprise the "second wave" of our UAB/USF research team, now steaming aboard the National Science Foundation research vessel (RV) Laurence Gould towards Palmer Station. Once we arrive we will join the rest of the research team led by Chuck, who have been working at the station since early February. Aboard our ship are two outstanding and enthusiastic researchers that are studying aspects of the biology of marine mammals. Let me share with you a bit about what they are to on this trip south.

Mark McDonald and his wife, Dinny Faulkenberg, are the chief scientist team on board our research cruise. They are here to conduct three different projects related to the study of whales in Antarctica. First and foremost are their investigations of the sounds (acoustics) that whales use to communicate with one another. By listening with sensitive acoustic instruments they can record the sounds that whales make in their natural habitat. One of the things they can do with the recorded sounds is called an "acoustic census", which means they essentially use the sounds that they record to estimate the abundance of the whales.

This is done routinely in Sperm Whales, where both males and females make clicking patterns that can be recorded across distances of 10 km in females and up to 30 km in males! Sperm whales are "chatty", with approximately 90% of the whales making clicking noises at any given time. Thus, they lend themselves well to acoustic census techniques. Analyzing their clicking patterns can also yield important information about whether they are organized into distinctive groups (almost like different races in human terms). Mark believes that acoustic measurements used to census Sperm Whales will soon become commonplace in other species of whales.

Mark and Dinny are also deeply involved in studying the songs of Blue Whales, the largest animal on our planet. In Blue Whales, the males do all the singing and do so mostly in the winter during the breeding season. There are nine different types of songs that can be used to distinguish different sub-groups of Blue Whales. Genetic evidence supports the hypothesis that these nine different song groups are indeed separate from one another. Using song recordings and genetics to reveal that Blue Whales are divided into different sub-groups is very important in how we manage their populations.

For example, Blue Whales once numbered in the hundreds of thousands in Antarctica. But heavy hunting in the 1920's reduced the populations by over 200,000 whales, and even though they were protected in the 1960's, today there are only about 1000 individuals left. It turns out that the sub-group of Blue Whales in the seas of Antarctica is distinct from all the other groups, including a nearby sub-group in Chilean waters off South America. Thus, if the numbers of Blue Whales in Chile were to increase, this should not be taken as a sign of the recovery of Antarctic populations, as it is likely these sub-populations do not interbreed. This is very important information to have in hand. The other two projects that Mark and Dinny are conducting on this cruise are designed to contribute information to an international pool of scientists studying whale population dynamics. This is done using both photographic and biopsy information. Photographic identification information is captured by whale biologists equipped with cameras with powerful telephoto lens. I often see Dinny on the bridge of our ship with just such a camera in her hand! Typically the photographs are taken from small zodiac boats that do not endanger the whales.

Each type of whale has its own distinguishing features. If Dinny were following a Humpback Whale she would take pictures of the underside of the fluke, whereas if she was close to a pod of Killer Whales she would focus either on the white saddle patch just behind the dorsal fin or the white eye patch. These photographs can be used to identify and thus get to know specific individuals. Biopsy is conducted by collecting a small skin sample from a whale. Mark uses a cross bow to shoot an arrow that removes a very small piece of outer skin tissue for later genetic analysis. This information, like photographs, can be used to identify specific individuals as well as better understand the genetics of different populations of whales.

Mark and Dinny are clearly making a substantial contribution to our understanding of the population biology of whales here in Antarctica. What a stroke of good fortune to have discovered them aboard the very ship that is taking us to Palmer Station!


TitleFromClick here to change to descending sortDate Posted
Funny storyRoz Farmer4/9/2004 12:30:39 AM

Hi Dr. McClintock,
Well, I'm glad to know that you are now on your way to Antartica! Funny story for you-- I'm a TrailBlazer so I give weekly campus tours, and one of the great things that we tell prospective students and their families about NS&M is the research that you do in Antarctica. I suppose I got confused when I heard the news about your cruise next January and was thinking that you were headed to Antarctica in January of 2004. Anyhow, one Monday early in this spring semester I led a tour through Campbell Hall, and I had just finished telling them about the great professors in NS&M and the opportunities for student research, that you studied marine polar ecology in Antarctica and you were there at that very moment doing research, you have a point named after you in Antarctica, and that your journal and photos were on UAB's website so that everyone can "experience" the trip --and at that moment I looked up and saw you and Dr. Marion walk by the tour group and start up the stairs. Having just told this group that you were in Antarctica, I was speechless. With a deer-in-the-headlight look, I just hoped that you wouldn't come over to the tour group and introduce yourself!! So I am glad to know now that you are really and truly in Antarctica! It was a funny moment. Anyhow, prospective students and their parents are very impressed to hear about your work - it is something great that makes NS&M and UAB in general to stand out. Have fun, and when you come back to Birmingham and see a tour group in Campbell Hall, please stop by and introduce yourself!
Go Blazers!
Roz Farmer

From J McClintock, Posted On 4/9/2004 12:30:39 AM

Roz - What a delight to have your message waiting for me this glorious morninig in Antarctica. The wind died last night and the sea is glassy and smooth. This is certainly a sign that our dive team will be heading out after breakfast to dive off the nearby snow covered islands to make collections of marine sponges for our ongoing studies of their chemical ecology. I am so honored to be included in the briefs that you and our cadre of outstanding UAB Trailblazers provide to visiting prospective students and their families. You know, sometimes I have stopped to welcome these students and their families to UAB. Good thing I didn't choose to do so that early Monday morning last spring semester! Anyway, a big thank you all the way from Antarctica for all you do to represent our university with such distinction and pizazz! Top notch students such as yourself make it so rewarding to be a teacher and researcher at UAB. Enjoy your spring and stop by now and again to check out our Antarctic journal entries and photos. And on your tours please do invite our prospective students and their families to join us as well! Cheers - Jim

Re: Whale SongDavianta4/12/2004 1:13:01 PM

My teacher read us your journal about whale songs. What kinds of whales have you seen around Antarctica? Did you ever see a blue whale? Does a whale have any enemies? Thank you for answering my questions.

From J McClintock, Posted On 4/12/2004 1:13:02 PM

Hi Davianta! Great to hear from you! I have seen several different kinds of whales here in Antarctica. These include Minke whales, Sperm whales, Humpback whales, and Killer whales (although you know Killer whales are not true whales). I have never seen a Blue whale here in Antarctica but years ago when I was teaching a college course in biological oceanography I took my students out on a boat in Monterey Bay, California. We had a 100 foot Blue whale swim right under our boat! Whales do indeed have enemies. For example, Killer whales can attack and kill other whales. They hunt in groups, almost like wolves, and can even kill whales bigger than they are. Hope this answers your questions. Cheers from Antarctica! Jim

Re: Whale SongVicki Marion4/13/2004 12:00:37 PM

Just wanted to say hello! By now you should be on land. The temp here now is 41. That is a little cooler than expected. Suppose to warm up by the weekend. Hello to the rest of the UAB gang. Ken met with the Bahamas class last night.

From J McClintock, Posted On 4/13/2004 12:00:39 PM

Hi Vicki! Great to hear from you on this snowy Antarctic day. The snow started early this morning and this afternoon we have at least 3 inches on the ground! It is beautiful out... clean and sparkling. 41 degrees! Wow I had suspected that the south would have warmed up beyond that by now. I knew that Ken had met last night with our UAB Tropical Ecology college students. Our return to teach in the Bahamas this June will be a nice shift from the balance of snow and ice! Thanks for touching bases. Cheers, Jim

Re: Whale SongKelly Young4/22/2004 10:21:57 AM

Dr. McClintock, Do whales ever seem to notice people or boats? You said a blue whale once went under a boat you were on. Would it go under a ship? What happens to whales when they die?

From J McClintock, Posted On 4/22/2004 10:21:59 AM

Hi Kelly, Great questions about whales! I am sure that whales know we are there when we are near them. They will sometimes come over to visit us, probably out of curiosity. They are gentle giants and mean no harm when they do visit. It can be pretty exciting when they do visit. Last summer my wife, Ferne, and my daughter, Jamie, went out on a whale watching trip off San Juan Island near Seattle. They saw Killer Whales in the distance and were thrilled when one literally came under their little boat chasing a salmon. It stayed for several minutes while the tourists on board screamed in delight, running back and forth to see the whale. Then, just before departing, when everyone was leaning far off the side just over the back of the whale, it blew water out its spout right into the faces of everyone above. They were soaked! I bet you the whale knew exactly what it was doing! Whales would likely avoid passing under a moving ship, but if they did it would likely be deep enough not to get hit! When whales die their bodies decompose and the nutrients and minerals are returned to the sea where they are used by other animals and plants. This is part of the cycle of life! Thanks for sending your questions! Cheers, Jim.

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The researchers completed their expedition in May 2004. Feel free to search this site for their archived journals and responses to questions.

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