New Tagging Technology Will Allow Scientists to Better Understand Whale Ecology

A new type of whale tag that records data every second was recently developed by scientists at Oregon State University. Similar tags have been used for studying other animals but large whales posed extra challenges. The technology, called the Advanced Dive Behavior tag, will allow for more in-depth studies on whale ecology. The details are in a paper that was just published in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

Tagging animals is a common practice in ecology research since it allows scientists to collect data from wild animals in their natural habitats. The technology has become increasingly sophisticated and researchers can now gather data on location, movement speed, heart rate, and other factors. Some tags can provide this information in real-time. There was no equivalent tag for large whales, however, which tend to dive so deep that the tags would break. The natural behaviors of large whales, such as sperm whales, are poorly understood and a proper tagging system would allow researchers to better study whale ecology.

A team of scientists developed a new tool for tracking and collecting data from large whales—the Advanced Dive Behavior tag, or ADB. The tag can track location, depth, movement speed, water temperature, light levels, and body orientation. To test their new technology, the team tagged sperm whales (Physeter microcephalus), blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus), and fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus). ADB tags are already providing ecologists with useful information—we now know that sperm whales dive to the very bottom of the ocean. The tags will allow scientists to easily collect information on dive patterns, feeding behaviors, and how the animals respond to human activities such as noise pollution.

ADB tags will be a huge help to scientists trying to better understand the biology and ecology of large whale species. The research team is already collecting brand new information on whale species that have been difficult to study, such as sperm whales.

REFERENCE

Mate BR, Irvine LM, Palacios DM. The development of an intermediate-duration tag to characterize the diving behavior of large whales. Ecology and Evolution (2016).

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