Current Research Projects
Whale Trust has several ongoing research projects that focus on behavior, social organization, and communication of humpback whales. The primary objective of these projects is to contribute to the understanding of natural behavior patterns in whales and provide critical insights into how living in a marine environment may impact mammalian biology.
Although the Hawaiian Islands are the center of our current humpback whale studies, Whale Trust’s founders and researchers have traveled the world in search of whales and have led or contributed to research programs in Alaska, Australia, Africa, Canada, Japan and various locations around the world.
To read our latest research update please download our 2012 newsletter here.
2013 Research Projects - Hawaii
Comparison of Song Changes
Throughout the North Pacific
This year, the team hopes to complete the fieldwork necessary to examine and analyze the similarities, differences and dynamics of change in the composition of songs between humpbacks in Hawaii, Mexico, Japan and the Philippines. Whale Trust is leading this project with collaboration from researchers in Mexico, Japan and the Philippines.
Playing Back Songs To Humpbacks Off Maui
For the past several years, Whale Trust researchers have been playing back sounds produced by male whales (songs, social sounds) to male and female humpbacks to see how they respond to the sounds, hoping to increase our understanding of how sounds mitigate interactions between whales on the breeding grounds. Last year, the team completed 25 song playbacks to male singers off Maui. This year, the team will continue this research by playing back songs to other singers to investigate the role, function and impact of the song has on other whales.
Song Research Update
Whale Trust researcher, Dr. Jim Darling, spoke with Marcy Lynn about what was accomplished this field season. "This was the second of a three subsequent year collection of songs from across the Pacific Ocean. Songs were collected from the Philippines (by Jo Marie Acebes), Japan (Manami Yamaguchi) and Mexico (Jorge Urban) as well as in Hawaii. After the final year of collection in 2013, we will look at the similarities, differences and dynamics of change in the composition of songs between the regions".
With additional funding support from the Committee of Research and Exploration at National Geographic, we returned in 2012 to the song playback study. With the help of the Whale Trust research team (Meagan Jones, Flip Nicklin, Jason Sturgis, Patti Hackney and Elisa Girola), different songs were broadcast to target singers, and their physical and acoustic responses measured. The responses ranged from attraction to the playback speaker to apparent avoidance. Analysis of singer movements and acoustic changes in relation to the specific playback stimuli will begin this summer.
In 2008, we arranged the use of the highest quality aerial camera system available (the one used to film the aerial sequences from Planet Earth) to film and document the relationships, interactions and behavior of humpback whales in multiple male-single female groups (called surface active groups) in Hawaii. This aerial project is part of our ongoing investigation into why male humpback whales sing songs during the breeding season.
The video shows only a few minutes of the nearly six hours of spectacular video that was taken of humpback whales over two-days in March. Click here to view video. (10MB QuickTime)
Principal Investigator, Jim Darling, Ph.D.
The song of the humpback whale is a loud, complex series of sounds repeated over and over. It occurs primarily during the breeding season, is sung only by males, and its composition slowly changes as it is being sung with all singers in a population singing the same version at any one time. Why humpback whales sing remains unknown. Hypotheses as to its purpose of the song have included the attraction of females, or the signaling of status between males. Since 1997 this research program has investigated song function through intensive study of the behavior of singers and their interactions with other whales. Our results to date have indicated that singing attracts other adult males, not females, and that the resulting male-male interactions are usually non-agonistic. Currently, we are examining the hypothesis that the song may facilitate cooperation between some males by conducting playback experiments to whales.
Female Reproductive Status and Behavior on the Hawaiian Breeding Grounds
Principal Investigator, Meagan Jones,
Ph.D., Antioch University New England
Humpback whales are one of the most intensively studied species of whales. Yet our knowledge of female reproductive behavior, and how the female fits into the social structure of humpback breeding and calving grounds, remains one of the great unknowns in humpback whale behavior. The purpose of this study is to investigate how female reproductive status (i.e., the presence or absence of a calf) affects female behavior patterns and interactions with males on the Hawaiian breeding grounds. Meagan is currently in the process of analyzing and writing up the results of this five-year study.
Photographic and Video Illustration of Humpback Whale Social Groups and Behavior Patterns on the Hawaiian Breeding Grounds
Principal Investigator, Flip Nicklin
Underwater Videographer and Research Assistant, Jason Sturgis
The purpose of this project is to systematically document, through high quality digital photography and video, the social alliances and behavior patterns, occurring both at the surface and underwater, of humpback whales on the Hawaiian breeding grounds. This work is integral to the research projects on song function and female behavior described above, in providing photographic data to determine sex, the spatial relationships of individuals, and for the analysis of behavioral sequences. This project includes the editing, cataloging and archiving of photographs and video for future research and education use.
Whale Trust Supports International Research Projects
One of the goals of Whale Trust is to help support other research projects related to whales. For the last two years, Whale Trust has provided support, assistance and/or funding to Jo Marie Acabes for fieldwork in the Philippines and supported Master’s student, Elisa Girola, on her thesis looking at humpback whale song.
Science and Community-Based Conservation of Humpback Whales and other Cetaceans in the Babuyan Islands, Philippines
Jo Marie Acabes, Philippines
The waters around the Babuyan Islands are the only known breeding ground for humpback whales in the Philippines. Since surveys began in 2000 it is now known that a considerable number of these whales are migrating here every year. Although they have been recently recognized as part of the Asian stock of humpback whales in the western North Pacific, very little is still known about the extent of their distribution, abundance and migratory patterns.
This project aims to address this gap in our knowledge by:
2) assessing the extent of destructive human activities and determining its effect on the whales and their habitat;
3) contributing scientific data for the development of a biodiversity conservation action plan for the Babuyan Islands.
Elisa Girola,graduate student, Trieste, Italy
Elisa Girola, a graduate student from the University of Trieste in Italy, is currently using songs and data collected by Whale Trust researchers in Hawaii to determine if there is a connection between song characteristics and the size (age) of the singer.
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