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Tuesday, 5 February, 2002, 15:54 GMT
Humane whale research plan
Blue whales on surface   Noaa
Blue whales: The new research has not been tried with other species
Alex Kirby

Australian scientists have found a novel way to study whales without killing them.

They say analysis of the whales' faeces lets them examine their stomach contents minutely.

Japan says the need to find out about the animals' diets is one reason why it kills hundreds of whales every year.

The Australians are offering their research to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) as a non-lethal method.

The new approach was developed by Australian and US researchers, who collected blue whale faeces in nets. The animals discharge them as a thin brown cloud near the ocean surface.

Tale of a whale

Using DNA testing, the researchers established what the whales had eaten and also a distinctive "signature" for each animal, as well as the internal parasites the whales were carrying.

Humpback breaching   Noaa
The new method could spare whales
The research was revealed by Dr Nick Gales, a principal research scientist at the Australian Environment Department's Antarctic division.

He said: "We will be telling the International Whaling Commission that this is a robust, non-lethal method for studying whales.

"It's going to provide some real information to put into food web models. If it points out that whales are competing for fish stocks, then we'll have to deal with that."

Japan argues that whales in some parts of the world may be eating commercially important quantities of fish.

Dr Gales said the DNA method had let researchers identify species such as krill in the blue whales' stomach contents, as well as nematode parasites. They had also established the whales' gender and individual characteristics.

The method has not yet been tested with minke whales, and Dr Gales acknowledged that it could not meet some of Japan's other research aims, such as foetal growth rates.

Hunting allowed

Japan kills about 500 minkes a year, most of them in the Antarctic, but some also in the North Pacific, where it has begun catching small numbers of sperm and Bryde's whales as well.

Humpback flukes   Noaa
Even the whale's sex is revealed
Minkes, the smallest of the great whales, can reach 10 metres (32 feet) in length in maturity. There are thought to be up to 750,000 in the Antarctic.

Blue whales, the largest animals in the world, were hunted close to extinction by the whaling fleets, and there may be fewer than 5,000 still in existence.

The killing of whales for research is allowed by the IWC, though many scientists as well as anti-whaling campaigners say it is unnecessary.

Money-saver

The Institute of Cetacean Research in Tokyo defends Japan's work. It says: "Japan's research programmes involve sighting surveys, photo identification, acoustic surveys and biopsy sampling.

"However, these tools are limited in the amount of scientific information they can provide. In order to gather detailed information the study of internal organs and tissues is essential."

Dr Gales acknowledged that the DNA research method could be time-consuming.

But he said: "It's certainly no more time-consuming than killing whales. And it's a lot cheaper."

Images courtesy of Noaa

See also:

14 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Whale farm plan lambasted
08 Jan 02 | Sci/Tech
Japan's whale-seeking satellite
04 Oct 01 | Sci/Tech
Whaling 'safe for a century'
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