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Researchers track blue whales by their songs

AFP-JIJI

An Australian-led group of scientists has for the first time tracked down and tagged Antarctic blue whales by using acoustic technology to follow their songs, the government said Wednesday.

The blue whale, the largest animal on the planet, is rarely spotted in the Antarctic Ocean but a group of intrepid researchers were able to locate and tag some of them after picking up on their deep and complex vocals.

Researcher Virginia Andrews-Goff said it was the first time acoustics have been used to lead scientists to the whales in real time. “The acoustics led us to the whales. They are quite, almost alienlike, deep resonating sounds. They are quite intense,” she said.

Environment Minister Tony Burke said the researchers, who spent seven weeks working from small boats in freezing Antarctic conditions, were captivated by the whales’ remarkable behavior.

“The Antarctic blue whale can grow to over 30 meters in length and weigh up to 180 tons; its tongue alone is heavier than an elephant and its heart is as big as a small car,” Burke said. “Even the largest dinosaur was smaller than the blue whale.”

Andrews-Goff said the scientists were often out in boats only 6 meters in length, sitting alongside the 30-meter giants. The scientists collected 23 biopsy samples and attached satellite tags to two of the whales, giving them never-before-obtained data on the animals’ movements during their summer feeding season and their foraging behavior.

“This method of studying Antarctic blue whales has been so successful it will now become the blueprint for other whale researchers across the world,” Andrews-Goff predicted.

She said while one tag stopped working after 17 days, the second was still working after two weeks, although erratically.

“We know very little about Antarctic blue whales’ movement, we don’t really know migration patterns, we don’t really know if some animals migrate and some animals don’t,” she said.

“By using these satellite tags we can actually see where they are spending a lot of their time and if that’s associated with environmental features like the sea ice edge.”