Weighing whales isn't easy, but drones are helping

How to weigh a whale without a scale

How to weigh a whale without a scale

But trying to determine the weight of a living whale based on a carcass is hard. So while body mass is considered fundamental to the understanding of animal physiology, studies of baleen whales often do not include their weight. This approach, according to the researchers, could be used to estimate the size of other marine mammals where alternative and more invasive methods aren't feasible or desirable.

Historically, data on whale body mass has been derived from dead specimens resulting from whaling operations, bycatch or strandings.

To get a better picture of the animals' measurements, an global group of nine researchers, together with Moore, recently enlisted drones to assist them in surveying an inhabitant of southern right whales in Península Valdés, Argentina. What's more, lethal sampling-or killing a whale for the purposes of scientific study-is widely considered to be unethical.

A team of researchers led by the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies in Denmark and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in MA published a study on the drone method this week in the British Ecological Society journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution.

This has left researchers with few options when it comes to figuring out just how chunky wild whales are.

Accurately determine the weight of live whales at sea is important because it can gauge how chronic stressors impact the whales' ability to survive and enable accurate sedative dosing of the whales that get ensnared in fishing gear.

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"The use of drones to estimate whale weight and condition, as well as to individually track calves while they grow beside their mothers, has been a real breakthrough in our investigation", said Dr. Mariano Sironi and Dr. Marcela Uhart from the Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program and co-authors of the study.

"It's the biggest breeding floor for southern right whales on the earth", says Fredrik Christiansen, an Eco physiologist at Aarhus Institute of Advanced Research in Denmark, and lead writer of the team's new paper in Strategies in Ecology and Evolution. They then developed a model that accurately calculated the body volume and mass of the whales.

The team's predictions were in close range to existing body mass data for right whales, though the researchers concede that their method is not ideal.

Due to their size and aquatic life, scientists have previously had to obtain data on the body mass of whales by weighing dead or stranded individuals.

"Knowing the body mass of free-living whales opens up new avenues of research", says Christiansen.

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