Monday, July 27th, 2009 | Author:  | 14,141 views - starting Aug 9/09

skinny whale what?!?

gray whale identification

a quick reference to distinguishing gray whales from other species ... click for a larger image

according to the urban dictionary, there is such a thing as “dolphin whale syndrome” … that made me chuckle …

according to biologists, however, there is also such as thing as “skinny whale syndrome” … this one’s not so funny …

skinny whale syndrome is a recent phenomenon that is being observed in pacific gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) by fishermen, local people living near marine environments, and marine biologists … the migration, feeding, and breeding behaviours of these magnificent mammals are changing …

(the atlantic gray whale population became locally extinct in the 18th century, most likely due to whaling …)

what’s happening to the world’s gray whales?

migration route of the gray whale along the west coast of america in the pacific ocean
migration route of the gray whale along the west coast of america in the pacific ocean

gray whales over-winter in mexico but spend summer in ocean waters near alaska … recently, the whales have been arriving in mexico later in the season and returning to the Bering Sea earlier …

population estimates have also plummeted, suggesting that the shift in migration patterns may be linked to (or caused by) a more deleterious issue …

the whales are also becoming overtly emaciated and are showing signs of malnutrition …

what causes this syndrome?

there have been several hypotheses put forth to explain this syndrome … gray whales may be suffering due to a decrease or unavailability of prey, marine pollution, disease, or a combination of factors …

gray whales in the pacific ocean are becoming thinner and showing signs of malnutrition, suggesting prey are either less abundant, more difficult to find, or changing in distribution and seasonal availability

gray whales in the pacific ocean are becoming thinner and showing signs of malnutrition, suggesting prey are either less abundant, more difficult to find, or changing in distribution and seasonal availability

decreased prey abundance is likely a result of increased ocean temperatures (in this case, the recent temperature rise in the Bering Sea is particularly relevant), over-fishing, marine pollution, changes in ocean acidity and nutrient levels, and increased competition with other predators for a share of an ever-dwindling food source …

ultimately, global warming appears to be a huge, if not primary, culprit … marine ecosystems are exceptionally deft at showing us a preview of the consequences of global climate change …

what does this mean for the future of gray whales?

natural selection is a theory that helps to explain how species evolve and adapt to the environment ... individuals and species that adapt well will survive and procreate, therefore spawning future generations ... individuals and species that do not adapt well will theoretically not reproduce and therefore eventually decrease in number and potentially become extinct ...
natural selection is a theory that helps to explain how species evolve & adapt to the environment … individuals & species that adapt well will survive & procreate, thereby spawning future generations … individuals & species that don’t adapt well will theoretically not reproduce & eventually decrease in number, potentially becoming extinct …

some scientists remain optimistic and believe that the future of gray whale populations is not perilous … skinny whale syndrome may perhaps be evidence of the whales adapting to the changing ocean temperatures, ocean currents, and availability and distribution of prey … rather than be a phenomenon about which humans should be concerned, skinny whale syndrome may simply indicate that gray whales are changing their survival strategy … that is, we’re watching evolutionary adaptation and natural selection at play …

this may all be true … i hope it is … like jared diamond, i am a “cautious optimist” … gray whales may hopefully pull through the contemporary vicissitudes of Earth’s oceans … however, i remain cautious because:

* we don’t know for sure … if we hope (i.e., assume) that gray whale populations will survive the effects of climate change simply because this species is considered resilient and fit enough to adapt, and because it has been known to survive centuries of environmental perturbations including the recent ice age and whale hunting, we may be making a gross misjudgment and an erroneous extrapolation … we cannot escape the reality that when our decisions and policies are less than cautious, we gamble with enormous risks that often have irreversible consequences …

many whales are exceptionally gentle, friendly, and curious ... there is so much that humans can learn from interacting with the animals and plants that co-inhabit Earth ... humans are natural beings ... we are animals ... i think we should welcome the idea of interacting safely and respectably with other species ... such interactions could expose us to magnificent worlds of alternate realities we would otherwise remain oblivious to ...
many whales are exceptionally gentle, friendly, and curious … there is so much that humans can learn from interacting with the animals and plants that co-inhabit Earth … humans are natural beings … we are animals … i think we should welcome the idea of interacting safely and respectably with other species … such interactions could expose us to magnificent worlds of alternate realities we would otherwise remain oblivious to …

* if the gray whale does survive, that does not guarantee that the millions of other marine species will be equally able to avoid extirpation (i.e., local extinction) or global extinction due to rapidly changing ocean ecosystems …

* i wonder: what is the “message” and the “bigger picture” behind this recently noticed phenomenon? … are gray whales skinny because there is a paucity of prey? … are the ocean bottoms vacuous and barren because of decreased biodiversity and decreased abundance of the species at the “bottom” of the food chain? … if so, then skinny whale syndrome is a symptom of a much more fundamental and immeasurably exigent issue …

* this phenomenon has been observed in gray whales largely because this is a coastal species and can therefore be observed and monitored relatively easily, even by non-scientists, along the length of its migration route … however, a similar trend may be occurring, unnoticed, in other whales and other marine species as well … that is, the gray whale may not be the only species facing a shortage in food supply …

the gray whale as an indicator species

indicator species are those who embody a particular trait or characteristic of an environment … studying indicator species can therefore reveal profound elements of ecosystem health and function …

the gray whale is an excellent indicator species for understanding the health of the oceans … if these incredibly strong and robust animals are suffering from changing ocean waters, what is happening to the rest of the ocean creatures? …  it is critical to understand how the more vulnerable species are faring …

what can we do to help gray whales?

it may be difficult to imagine how you can contribute to the health of gray whales and of the oceans in general … but you can help!

… check your consumption of water (check out this series of posts that list water-saving tips), marine-sourced foods and especially endangered or threatened species such as tuna, and products that contribute to water pollution either directly (e.g., pesticides, pharmaceutical drugs, plastics, etc.) or indirectly (e.g., mining and forestry products that pollute water systems in the extraction and processing of the input natural resources) …

support campaigns, such as the WWF and IFAW western gray whale campaigns, to help stop government policies that harm gray whales and their habitats …

learn more about pacific gray whales and then share this information with your family & friends … education fosters knowledge, which fuels change …

visit the to learn more

visit the whale & dolphin conservation society (www.wdcs.org/) to learn more

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extinction
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2 Responses

  1. 1
    Steve Johnson 

    I guess it’s a compliment to be called a whale these days. They look so beautiful in those pictures. I recently watched the movie “Whale Rider” and it was really well done. I suggest that you check it out if you’re into whales.

  2. Unfortunately there’s nothing natural about the selection of the future generations when they are so heavily influenced by another species – us.

    Everyone can do more to help. Awareness is a huge factor. So many people don’t realise the impact of their relative gluttony when it comes to the planets resources. We all consume too much.

    But equally so many are also oblivious to the fact that whaling still goes on. Many thought it eradicated in the 80′s when the moratorium came into being.