New Research Method May Ease Whale Killing

Andrew Darby
Sydney Morning Herald
February 6, 2002

Japan kills hundreds of whales every year claiming that it's necessary for scientific study—a move that outrages many people around the world. Now, Australian scientists have developed a research method that will further challenge the long-disputed practice.

The method involves using DNA testing to determine the contents of whales' stomachs, with the evidence obtained from the giant mammals' bodily waste.

The resulting data indicates to the scientists what prey the whales have consumed, provides an individual "signature" for each animal, and even shows what intestinal parasites they carry.

"We will be telling the International Whaling Commission that this is a robust, non-lethal method for studying whales,'' said Nick Gales, a principal research scientist in the Antarctic Division of Australia's Federal Environment Department.

Despite repeated votes against Japan's whaling program at the IWC, Japanese whalers kill more than 500 minke whales each year under a self-awarded scientific permit. In 2000 the whalers also began catching small numbers of the larger Brydes and sperm whales. The meat is sold at fish markets.

IWC permits for whale hunting require applicants to consider whether scientists can obtain answers to their research questions using non-lethal methods. Japan has repeatedly argued that it must kill whales to examine their stomach contents.

Gales said the DNA-based method, which was tested on blue whales, shows that it's possible to identify in the feces of whales what prey they have consumed, such as krill, any nematode parasites that exist, and even the whales' gender and individual identity.

"It's going to provide some real information to put into food web models," said Gales. "If it points out that they are competing with fish stocks, then we'll have to deal with that."

Gales agreed that some research questions of interest to Japanese scientists, such as fetal growth rates, cannot be answered by the new method.

The breakthrough occurred when researchers in Victoria, Western Australia, and the United States collected the feces of blue whales in nets. The animals eliminate wastes near the surface of the water, leaving a thin brown cloud in the water.

Gales said DNA material in the wastes was separated out and individually identified, to be matched with known species.

Collecting the data can be time-consuming because it means finding and staying close to surfacing whales, Gales explained. "But it's certainly no more time-consuming than killing whales. And it's a lot cheaper,'' he said.

Continued on Next Page >>



NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.