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Satellite tag allows long-term tracking of whale behavior

A team of researchers from Oregon State University (OSU) has developed a new satellite tag called RDW which allows scientists to better track whales’ behavior, including previously unobserved feeding events during dives. This tag is a major advancement in researchers’ ability to observe important whale behavior events and habitats, and better understand whales’ responses to human activities, such as ship traffic or military sonar.

As shipping traffic increases, whales are more at risk of being struck by large vessels. According to the experts, the 30 meters of the water column (the vertical expanse of water which stretches from the water’s surface to the ocean floor) is considered a “danger zone” for whales swimming through shipping lanes.

“One of the benefits of these new tags is that they give us information about how much time whales are spending within the danger zone throughout their migration,” said study lead author Daniel Palacios, an associate professor of Whale Habitats at OSU. “With that information, we can identify areas of higher risk and make more informed decisions to help protect them from the threat of ship strikes.”

Moreover, the ability to monitor dive behavior and identify changes could also have important applications for assessing how whales respond to sources of loud sound, such as sonar used by the United States Navy. In addition, the new satellite tag could help shed more light on marine mammal physiology, behavior, ecology, and conservation.

“Studying anything, whether it is a plant, animal or even something like our solar system, relies on our ability to observe it,” said study co-author Ladd Irvine, an expert in the ecology of large whales at OSU.

“Whales spend the vast majority of their lives underwater, where we can’t see them. They can move more than 100 kilometers in a day, so typical methods of observation aren’t reliable for keeping track of where they are going or what they are doing. Tags allow us to ride along with the whales as they go about their lives, similar to a fitness tracker or smartphone app.”

This new system allows scientists to monitor the feeding behavior of whales over much longer periods than was previously possible. “Before the advent of tagging, we could only get glimpses into the lives of the whales when they surfaced or by following individuals for a few hours at a time. It was like trying to watch a theater production in the dark, where someone would flip the lights on for a few seconds every now and then. By tracking whales across weeks, months, and even over a year of their lives, we are now able to put together a more complete picture of the lives of whales,” Irvine concluded.

The study is published in the journal Animal Biotelemetry

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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