for National Geographic News
Four North American right whalesof the fewer than 350 left in the worldhave been found dead along the eastern seaboard of the United States since November.
Researchers were especially distressed by the death of one whale, named Bolo, which was found dead off Nantucket Island on January 10. A 45-foot (13.7-meter) female, she had given birth to at least six calves, the most ever recorded for a right whale.
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"The loss of a reproductive female, especially one as successful as Bolo, is a blow to this population that is just hanging in the balance," said Moira Brown, a right whale expert at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts.
Brown says the animal is "on the brink of extinction."
Big and Slow
The right whales were hunted for centuries. They got their name from whalers who considered them to be the "right" whales to kill because of their large size, coastal distribution, and slow swimming speed. Unlike other whale species, the stocky right whale also floats after death.
The North American right whale, which is closely related to the North Pacific and South Atlantic right whales, was almost hunted to extinction in the mid-1700s. The hunt was eventually banned in 1935.
Today they run the risk of getting hit by a ship or entangled in fishing lines. The whales summer in the Bay of Fundy, off Nova Scotia. Pregnant females migrate south to waters off the U.S. state of Georgia in the winter to give birth. Researchers don't know the winter locations of most of the other types of right whales.
In November a pregnant right whale was found off the Virginia coast, possibly a victim of being struck by a ship. In December another whale was found dead 86 miles (138 kilometers) east of Nantucket.
On January 12, only two days after Bolo's death, another female right whale, named Lucky, was found dead off the coast of Georgia. Lucky, named for scars she received from a previous ship-strike, was pregnant with her first known calf.
"To say the last 12 months have been devastating to right whales is an understatement," said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, a biologist for the International Wildlife Coalition in East Falmouth, Massachusetts.
Right whales are so rare that scientists who study them know them by name. Each whale has a distinctive pattern on the top and side of its head. The patterns are made up of rough, raised patches of skin called callosities. Scientists use the patterns to distinguish individual animals.
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