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Creature Feature: What whales eat

Right whales are massive creatures, and they need enormous amounts of food and nutrients to power their bodies.

Right whales have no teeth, instead, they rely on a series of plates in their mouth known as “baleen,” which filter out food from large gulps of water. This works particularly well for them because their diet consists primarily of small marine creatures called copepods, a form of zooplankton found in the ocean. These copepods, in turn, feed on microscopic plants called phytoplankton.

But it can take a long time for an animal of the right whale’s size to get all the nutrients it needs by just filtering through the ocean. As we’ve come to understand right whales through research and observation, these whales may be tracking their favorite food through smell! As copepods consume phytoplankton, a chemical compound called dimethyl sulfide (DMS) is produced, releasing a distinctive odor into the air. Researchers believe that right whales may use their advanced olfactory senses to pick up on this scent and locate copepods.

This discovery has massive implications for our understanding of how right whales live out in the wild and our efforts to protect their numbers and keep them out of harm’s way. Using the same process as our cetacean bloodhounds, we can measure DMS concentration levels to predict where right whales will feed next and make way for copepod foraging whales.

Awareness of their location and where they might be headed allows for hazards like vessels to slow down and lobster trap lines to be preemptively removed from their way to ensure safe passage. This method of tracking whales has additional upsides compared to traditional tag trackers, which risk falling off or causing infections. Tracking their food may be a less intrusive, more accurate way of ensuring their safety.

Understanding our cetacean friends foraging behaviors and habits will help us to better protect them without infringing on their way of life.

Steady on,

Posted on May 9, 2024.

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Save the Right Whales

The North Atlantic right whale is a critically endangered whale. In the 1970s, with the first whale watches, there were estimated to be 350 right whales, and the population was growing. Then, in 2017, right whales took a turn for the worse. By 2020, the population had fallen to 338 right whales, with only 50-70 breeding females. We must now do more to protect and restore right whales.


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