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New whale tagging technology has opened a window into the life of whales

Scientists from Oregon State University reported in a new study that advancements in whale tagging technology have allowed them to track whale behavior in unprecedented detail.

A new sophisticated “Advanced Dive Behavior,” or ADB, tag has allowed researchers to record underwater data every second for hours, days and weeks at a time. This has expanded scientists’ knowledge of whale ecology in areas deep within the ocean and over thousands of miles of travel. The tags even give information on the whale’s interaction with their prey.

The research done on ADB whale tagging technology from 2007-2015 has been supported by the Office of Naval Research, the U.S. Navy, and the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers. Bruce Mate, professor and director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, reports, “The ADB tag is a pretty revolutionary breakthrough… This provides us a broad picture of whale behavior and ecology that we’ve never had before.”

According to researchers, this new form of whale tagging expands observations on whale feeding and behavior by several orders of magnitude. It shows when, where, and how they feed, as well as how they are affected by passing ships and water temperatures.

The findings, published in the journal Ecology and Evolution, showed sperm whales diving more than 1000 meters to the sea floor and submerging for up to 75 minutes. They also reported baleen whales lunging after their food, as the ADB tags can sense whale movement and body orientation as well as water depth, temperature, and light levels.

These tags can also provide a basis to better understand how whales react to undersea noises such as sonar and seismic exploration. Daniel Palacios, a co-author on the study, says, “By using this technology on three different species, we’ve seen the full range of behavior that is specific to each species.” These three species are sperm, blue, and fin whales.

Earlier tagging technology was unable to return data from the deep sea for much longer than a day. The new ADB tags are able to constantly acquire data for up to seven weeks at a time. They then detach from the whale and float up to the surface, allowing scientists to retrieve these tags and download the new data.

Ladd Irvine, the corresponding author on the study, believes that by using these tags the researchers can gather data at a much lower cost with far less manpower, saying, “This tag type yields amazing results. It’s going to significantly expand what we can accomplish, learning both about whale ecology and the ocean itself.”

Credit: author Connor Ertz

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