Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Madagascar: In Search of Omura's Whales

Dr. Salvatore Cerchio is a marine mammal biologist who has studied free ranging populations of cetaceans around the world for more than 30 years. He is currently a Visiting Scientist at the New England Aquarium, with a guest affiliation at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In November 2015, he went off the grid to study Omura's whales off the coast of Madagascar. 

The Omura’s whale (Balaenoptera omurai) is a recently-discovered species of baleen whale, first recognized as a distinct and ancient species in 2003. Previously confused with Bryde’s whale (B. edeni), at the time of its discovery it was known only from a handful a strandings and specimens from whaling, and never documented in the wild. Then in 2013, my team and I made an exciting discovery off the northwest coast of Madagascar: the first population of this rare and poorly understood species that could actually be studied, found off the northwest island of Nosy Be.

I have been conducting research on cetaceans in Madagascar since 2004, and studying coastal dolphins and cetacean diversity in the Nosy Be region since 2007. The work on Omura's whales began in 2013, when we started to see an unusual baleen whale during an effort to document diversity of cetacean species in the region. At first, with only a few brief encounters, we thought it was a Bryde’s whale, a common mistake. But then once we started to see them more frequently, we realized that this was something very special, and genetic verification confirmed that it was in fact Omura’s whale.

Since then we have published the first scientific study on the ecology and behavior of the species in Royal Society Open Science. In 2015, I joined the New England Aquarium as a Visiting Scientist, and currently the work continues through an international collaboration between the New England Aquarium, the Malagasy NGO Les Baleines Ass'eau, and the Madagascar Centre National de Recherches Océanographiques (CNRO). During 2015/2016, the work is funded by the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, and focuses on studying feeding ecology, acoustic behavior, status and distribution of the population around Nosy Be.

In the coming blog posts, I will document some of the exciting happenings and discoveries of the November 2015 field season. Stay tuned!

— Sal Cerchio

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