Movements, communication, calf suckling rates and body condition of southern right whales

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Overview

Little is known about the fine-scale movements and habitat-use of southern right whales on their breeding and calving grounds in Australia – many of which are slated for development activity, including associated increases in shipping, marine tourism and recreational activity. Furthermore, little is known about ambient ocean noise in these regions and the extent to which southern right whales will be exposed to increased noise derived from human activities. The purpose of this research project is to improve our understanding of the baseline ecology and behaviour of southern right whales on their breeding and calving grounds in South West Australia, and to gain an understanding of how human activities may influence these baseline behavioural patterns, including suckling rates of neonate calves.

Murdoch University researchers Dr. Fredrik Christiansen and  Prof. Lars Bejder, and Prof. Peter T. Madsen from Aarhus University (Denmark), are leading this research project which is being conducted in Augusta, Western Australia (July and mid August 2016).

Dtagging a southern right whale in Flinders Bay, Augusta. Research conducted under permits and ethics approval.

Dtagging a southern right whale in Flinders Bay, Augusta. Research conducted under permits and ethics approval.

The project aims to gain an understanding of:

  • The fine scale movements, bioenergetics and habitat-use of southern right whales off Augusta, WA.
  • The ambient ocean noise in the study area and the extent to which right whales are exposed to noise derived from ship traffic, recreational boating, and whale-watch tourism activities.
  • Whether acoustic or mechanical cues are used to mediate suckling in neonate southern right whales.
  • The suckling rates of southern right whale calves and how suckling rates might be affected by human activities. Such data can directly inform mitigation of human activities on mom/calf pair energy transfer.
  • The health of the Southern right whale population breeding/nursing off Augusta.
  • The relationship between female body condition and the body condition of their offspring.
  • The use of UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) technology as a non-invasive tool to measure body condition in right whales.

The information acquired will aid management agencies (e.g. Western Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife; Federal Government) in developing conservation strategies to protect southern right whales in areas of proposed coastal development and increasing human activities.

Approach

This study is using a suit of innovative technologies (suction cup tags and drones) to assess fine-scale movements, acoustic communications, ambient noise, calf suckling rates and body condition of southern right whales.

We are attaching digital acoustic recording tags (DTAGs) to whales for periods of up to 24 hours. DTAGs are being used to monitor fine-scale movement in three dimensions, vocal behaviour, calf suckling rates and the acoustic environment. DTAGs are being attached to the whales in a manner that minimizes the potential for disturbance. We are tagging the right whales by approaching them slowly in a small vessel and using the hand-held poles for attachment.

An example of how we tag the southern right whales with suction cup Dtags. Note the carbon fibre pole that is used to attached the tag to the whale.

An example of how we tag the southern right whales with suction cup Dtags. Note the carbon fibre pole that is used to attached the tag to the whale.

This study also involves flying UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles; also known as drones) over whales to collect overflight video and images of whales for morphometric measurements to assess their body size and health. The duration of each UAV flight is approx. ten minutes. The UAV is being launched from our small research vessel and flown at a height of 10-80 meters above the whale(s). When the UAV is in position above the whale(s), it takes vertical aerial pictures/video of the whale as it surfaces.

Permits

Our research activities are permitted by the WA Department of Parks and Wildlife, Murdoch University Animal Ethics Committee and the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority. Please note that our permit conditions restrict us to conduct research activities away from public view.

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