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Mama whales teach babies where to eat
Date:2/8/2009

SALT LAKE CITY University of Utah biologists discovered that young "right whales" learn from their mothers where to eat, raising concern about their ability to find new places to feed if Earth's changing climate disrupts their traditional dining areas.

"A primary concern is, what are whales going to do with global warming, which may change the location and abundance of their prey?" asks Vicky Rowntree, research associate professor of biology and a coauthor of the new study. "Can they adapt if they learn from their mother where to feed or will they die?"

Previous research by Rowntree and colleagues showed that when climate oscillations increase sea temperatures, southern right whales give birth to fewer calves because the warm water reduces the abundance of krill, which are small, shrimp-like crustaceans eaten by the whales.

The new study scheduled for publication in the Feb. 15 issue of the journal Molecular Ecology used genetic and chemical isotope evidence to show that mothers teach their calves where to go for food.

"Southern right whales consume enormous amounts of food and have to travel vast distances to find adequate amounts of small prey," says study coauthor Jon Seger, professor of biology at the University of Utah. "This study shows that mothers teach their babies in the first year of life where to go to feed in the immensity of the ocean."

The study tracked how whales are related by analyzing maternal DNA, and then compared that with dietary information obtained by characterizing different forms or isotopes of chemical elements in their skin. The two techniques which the researchers say they used together for the first time allowed the scientists to determine that whale mothers, their offspring and other extended family members eat in the same place.

"North Atlantic right whales feed in similar patterns and scientists have access to their feeding areas, but we don't know whe
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Contact: Lee Siegel
leesiegel@ucomm.utah.edu
801-581-8993
University of Utah
Source:Eurekalert  

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