Science Talk: Feeding Ecology and Physiology of Baleen Whales

July 21, 2021

Feeding Ecology and Physiology of Baleen Whales
with Guest Speaker Geraldine Busquets-Vass
Thursday, August 5, 2021
4PM PT
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Baleen whales are considered as sentinels of the ocean’s health, because their populations are susceptible to changes in the marine ecosystems. They are fascinating to observe, and many populations sustain large whale watching companies. Because this group is both ecologically and economically important, it is necessary to continuously monitor their populations.  However, this is not an easy task due to logistic limitations associated with their distribution and our inability to continuously observe them. To reveal many secrets of the foraging ecology and physiology of different baleen whales, researchers have been using “isotopic signatures” embedded in their tissues that provide information on their life histories at different time scales, depending on the tissue analyzed.  In 2009, twelve years ago, a dead female blue whale came ashore in Northern California.  The Noyo Center preserved not only her entire skeleton but all her baleen. Baleen is made of keratin, the same protein in our fingernails. As her baleen grew it preserved a record of both the changes in the environment where she found food and on her general heath.  In this presentation we will review how tissues are analyzed to track these preserved isotopic signatures to obtain information on the biology and behavior of whales. We then will go back in time to learn a bit about the life of the Noyo blue whale before she died.

Geraldine Busquets-Vass was born in Mexico City. She is a Marine Biologist with a Ph.D. in Marine Sciences. For the past fifteen years she has participated in marine mammal surveys from small boats, airplanes, and ships. Her research has focused on understanding the foraging ecology and reproductive physiology of marine megafauna via analysis of intrinsic biomarkers in animal tissues. During her Ph.D., she studied the foraging ecology, movement patterns, and physiology of blue whales using stable isotope analysis in skin and baleen plates. Currently she is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, at Dr. Seth D. Newsome Laboratory. The aim of her project is to characterize the foraging ecophysiology and migratory patterns of blue, gray, fin, and humpback whales in the eastern Pacific Ocean using bulk tissue and amino acid isotope analysis of baleen plates. The results of this research will enable us to assess the vulnerability of baleen whales to environmental change to help inform species-specific management plans.
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