Wildlife Wednesday: could traffic control for whales help prevent ship strikes?

Plus: bowhead whales spending more time in Arctic waters, Toronto Zoo's newborn white rhino calf gets a name, bird brains are put to the test, and the pesky leafhopper that could help shed light on climate change

Just like us, whales dislike like the sound of honking. (Photo: Green Fire Productions/Flickr [CCBY 2.0 DEED])
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As it turns out, humans aren’t the only ones in need of traffic control.

The Cetacean Desk is a new four year pilot program aimed at protecting whales from colliding with sea vessels in the Salish Sea. The program intends to provide mariners with a real-time map of reported whale sightings to help  divert ships away from the cetaceans’ paths. Joe Gaydos, science director for the SeaDoc Society, a science and education nonprofit based on Orcas Island, explained to the Seattle Times that underwater noise caused by ships hinder the sonic detection whales use to map out their space and hunt for food, leading to inadvertent collisions. The collisions, although rare, are not always reported due to the lack of visual evidence. “It was very clear that that whale was T-boned by the bow of a ship, it just broke my heart,” said Joe Gaydos, when recounting the time he saw a minke whale with collision injuries.

Bow-heading your way

A bowhead mother and calf swim in icy water, perhaps awaiting their summer migration. (Photo: NOAA/ National Ocean Service photo/Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED])
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In related news, scientists are concerned after reports that bowhead whales are venturing out into shipping routes.

Bowhead whales migrate every year from the Chukchi sea in the summer to the Bering Sea in the winter for breeding. In 2022 however, researchers from the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State university observed the mammals’ spending more time in the Chukchi sea and delaying their departure to their winter breeding grounds. Angela Szesciorka, a marine scientist working on tracking the whales, says that the availability of food due to warmer temperatures could be why they’re leaving for the Bering Sea later. This northward shift may also put bowhead whales at increased risk of ship collisions, says Szesciorka, with commercial shipping increasing in the North as sea ice shrinks — particularly in the Chukchi Sea. Bowhead whales have been adapting their migration patterns to rapidly changing climate conditions, which makes them very resilient. But, although their change in migration patterns may not necessarily be a bad thing, it must be monitored. 



Baby Kifaru (2 months old) and her mom, Sabi (14 years old). (Photo: Toronto Zoo)
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The Toronto Zoo’s “big but little” white rhino calf, who until recently went by #TZTankPuppy, now has a very fitting name: Kifaru, which translates to both “tank” and “rhino” in Swahili.

Kifaru was born on the morning of December 28th as the first calf to mother Sabi. He bolsters the critically endangered white rhino population, of which there are currently fewer than 16,000 in the wild. These numbers continue to decline due to habitat loss and continued poaching of rhinoceros horns for illegal trade. 

“Baby arrivals always make for an exciting time for our team and our community of supporters, but more importantly, it also helps to secure the sustainability of rhino populations in human care,” says Dolf DeJong, CEO of the Toronto Zoo. He says he looks forward to introducing Kifaru to the public as the weather gets warmer. In the meantime, a small number of guests can meet Kifaru in his indoor home as part of the Baby Rhino Wild Encounter, with a portion of the proceeds being used to help conservation efforts.

Kifaru is also enjoying the life of a content creator, and can be seen virtually from 1pm till 6pm along with his mother on the Toronto Zoo’s zoolife website.

Bird brains

The Blue Jay was one of the bird with the largest brains of the birds studied, and scored highly in innovation rate. (Photo: Rosana Prada/Flickr [CC BY 2.0 DEED])
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In the largest study of its kind ever conducted, 203 individual wild bird species were put through the gauntlet to see which could bypass a number of foraging challenges. The purpose of the study was to test the theory that the results of these artificial ecological challenges, like removing a lid from a food container, could be the sole predictors of brain size and innovative behaviour in the wild for certain species.

The study was conducted by a team of researchers from Rockefeller University in collaboration with McGill, and was headed by postdoctoral fellow Jean-Nicolas Audent. 

Published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, the study confirmed species which exhibited a diversity of technical and food innovation was a direct indicator of relative brain-size — better than any other measure. Speaking on the results of the experiment, Audet concludes, “we now have a more valid model to study the evolution of intelligence.”

The results posed an obvious next question for the research team: to examine in more detail which brain components are responsible for increased problem solving skills in some species, which allow them to be more successful in changing environments.

Hopping from consequence to consequence

A potato leafhopper, one of the two dominant species of leafhopper found in Quebec. (Photo: Gail Hampshire/ Wikimedia Commons)
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A study out of Laval University, Q.C., suggests that leafhoppers could help shed light on climate change’s impacts on agriculture. The study, published in Cell Reports, explains that the insect is appearing more and more in Quebec fields due to the warming climate. Leafhoppers carry diseases that are particularly harmful to strawberry plants and, in Quebec, there were 16 cases of strawberry petal disease between 2016 and 2022. This increased presence means added worry for Quebec’s strawberry farms, which supply more than half of Canada’s strawberries. The researchers found that the two most dominant types of hoppers found in Quebec arrived 10 days earlier than predicted from the United States. The co-author of the paper Edel Pérez-López said to CTV Montreal that, although the bacteria carried by the hoppers haven’t shown up in plants yet, it is still cause for concern. He explained that the researchers’ predictive model of migration patterns due to climate change show that the leafhoppers could target the Prairies, which harvest some of Canada’s most important crops.


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