Look inside the whale

Scientists develop a method for studying the whales' stomach contents without killing them

Published: Thursday 28 February 2002

No more scrutiny pretensions<s for the past many years, Japan has come up with frivolous reasons for killing hundreds of whales: the mammals may be eating commercially important quantities of fish, therefore, it is important to identify the contents of their diet. Now, Australian and us scientists have developed a method that will challenge this long-disputed reason. The scientists say that analysis of the whales' faeces provides a good insight about what's inside their stomach.

The breakthrough occurred when the researchers collected and analysed blue whale's waste, which was excreted near the surface of the water. The researchers after separating the dna material from the wastes, established what the whales had eaten. They also identified a distinctive 'signature' for each animal, as well as the internal parasites the whales were carrying. "Through this method it is not only possible to identify the preys that have been consumed, but even the whales' gender and individual identity can be traced," says Nick Gales, principal research scientist at the Australian environment department's Antarctic division. "It's going to provide some real information to put into food web models," Gales added.

At present, the method has not yet been tested in minke whales. Gales acknowledged that it could not meet some of Japan's other research aims, such as foetal growth rates. Moreover, it is time-consuming. But this should not prove to be an impediment for its use. "It's certainly no more time-consuming than killing whales. And it's a lot cheaper," said Gale. The researchers would very soon present their method in front of the International Whaling Commission (iwc).

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