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Northern right whales head south to give birth, leave genetic 'fingerprints' with NOAA researchers
Date:3/3/2008

Like many northerners who head south to warmer climates for the winter, many Northern right whales also head south in November and stay into April. Their destination is the only known calving ground for this rare and endangered populationthe waters off Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. When they arrive, NOAA scientists are there to greet them, and to take DNA samples.

Although they are large animals, finding them in the ocean is not easy. Like people, they dont all congregate in one spot, says NOAA researcher Dr. Richard Pace of the challenge. There may be one here, and three others 50 miles away. And you dont know who will be there this year. Pace, and colleagues from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GDNR) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), are primarily focused on locating right whale newborns and adults who have not yet been sampled.

To find the whales, the researchers depend heavily on aerial spotting teams. Once close enough to a whale, the researchers work from an inflatable boat to collect small samples of skin and blubber. The DNA found in the skin can be used to determine sex and create a genetic "fingerprint for later re-identification. These samples will be added to an already extensive collection of right whale DNA, maintained at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, obtained from approximately 300 individuals.

DNA collected and banked through the project not only helps researchers identify individual whales and their parents, but also to assess genetic variation in the population, determine how many females may be reproductively active, monitor the health of individual animals, and help understand their mating system. Better understanding of the stocks composition and condition improves prospects for the survival of this small population, currently estimated at just over 300 animals.

The right whales name is believed to have come from whalers who thought they were the "
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Contact: Shelley Dawicki
shelley.dawicki@noaa.gov
508-495-2378
NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service
Source:Eurekalert

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