As part of a collaboration between the Canadian Whale Institute, the New England Aquarium, and the Natural Resources DNA Profiling and Forensic Centre (NRDPFC) at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, graduate students have been studying right whale genetics since 1988.
Perched on the bow of a research vessel, researchers use crossbows to retrieve skin samples. Samples are then sent to Trent University for analysis to obtain critical genetic information. This work has resulted in a comprehensive databank of individual whales - the best profile of any endangered species yet.
Why is it important to study right whale genetics?
Genetic analysis is used to examine otherwise elusive aspects of right whale history, biology and recovery. First, by assessing right whale DNA we are able to examine aspects of species past such as their evolutionary history, potential impacts of whaling events and climatic changes over time, and historical population structure and demographics. In addition, we can glean important information on the species current status, such as mating patterns and reproductive success, disease resistance, genetic impacts of whaling and levels of inbreeding. Finally, we use genetic analysis to link dead whales back to previously identified individuals, particularly in cases where carcasses and parts that are not individually recognizable.
For more information on how genetics is used to study the North Atlantic right whale, please check out the Right Whale Zone.