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Rowntree Right Whales



More than 50 years ago, Victoria Rowntree, research professor of biology at the University of Utah, was invited by the animal behaviorist Roger Payne to visit his then-new right-whale research project at Península Valdés (PV) in Patagonia, Argentina.

Victoria Rowntree, in the field. Banner photo: Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas

Payne was already famous for discovering (together with his wife Katy Payne) the “Songs of the Humpback Whale” – probably the most famous nature album in history.  A few years later Rowntree joined the right-whale project as a full-time researcher and began a long career during which she played leading roles in shaping, and then sustaining, what has become the most important study of its kind.

Rowntree has always had a passion for animals. Initially she wanted to become a veterinarian, but shifted her focus after Payne, her animal behavior professor at Tufts University, asked if she wouldn’t rather study healthy animals in the wild. After graduating, Rowntree worked with Payne on a barn owl echolocation project at Rockefeller University in New York before returning to Massachusetts and working with C.R. Taylor at Harvard’s Concord Field Station for five years.

At the Museum, Rowntree was responsible for performing experiments in which  various species of animals were run on treadmills while researchers recorded their oxygen consumption and heat balance. The subjects included chimpanzees, lion cubs, cheetahs and even an ostrich. These experiments resulted in landmark animal exercise physiology papers with Rowntree as one of the authors.

Despite her success as a researcher, Rowntree didn’t enjoy the work she was doing, she says, “… because you have to know the extremes… It wasn’t for me.” Instead, she wanted to observe animals in their natural habitats. “It’s just fun watching any animal for a long time, one that’s not in an aquarium, but out in the ocean.”

By this time, Payne was back in the Boston area and the PV right whale project was beginning to take shape.  Rowntree asked Payne whether she could join the small team of researchers who were building a “catalog” of individually recognized whales. He immediately said yes.

Giant Sea Creatures

When the PV right whale project began, little was known about the giant sea creatures which average 43 to 56 feet in length and weigh up to 176,000 pounds. Biologists weren’t sure exactly how often female whales bore calves because any prior knowledge came from whalers studying the placental scars in the wombs of whales they had killed. (Though now contested, right whales were named so because they were the “right” whales to kill.) Inspired by the British ethologist Jane Goodall and other researchers who were closely observing animals in the wild, Payne realized that tracking the lives of individual whales, especially reproducing females in their natural habitat for long periods of time, was likely key to understanding their reproduction, ecology and demographics.

Southern Right Whale. NOAA fisheries

Each year, in the months of July through October, southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) arrive at bays on the shores of PV to calve and raise their young in the safety of the shallow waters. Cliffs along the coast provide excellent locations to observe the whales and photo-identify individuals, the primary method of data collection for this project. “Roger realized that repeated photo-identification of individual whales would allow the population size and birth intervals and other important demographic parameters to be estimated,” says U Emeritus Professor of biology Jon Seger, Rowntree’s husband and frequent research collaborator.

What Rowntree and her colleagues look for are distinctive patterns in the whale’s callosities: rough patches of thickened skin on the whale’s head. Within the circles of callus tissue are sensory hairs that may help the whales find their prey. Callosites appear white against the whale’s black skin and are covered with living blankets of light-bodied crustacean passengers or “whale lice.”

Using photos of the whale’s heads, Rowntree and her colleagues have identified more than 4,000 individuals to date; many have been seen over spans of two-to-five decades and in many different years, with and without calves.

A half century of data

Hovering drone over a right whale. Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas

As Rowntree and her team were observing the changes in the right whale population in Patagonia, they were constantly improving the technology they used to document the animals. Beginning in 1971, annual photographic surveys were conducted by flying along the perimeter of the Peninsula in a light plane which would circle low over groups of whales while a photographer snapped frames on 35mm black-and-white film. Later the National Geographic Society got involved and provided 35mm color film and processing. Finally, in 2005, the team made a long-anticipated move to digital cameras.

Today, quadcopter drones are primarily used to photograph the whales. With a drone, researchers can hover over the water and wait for whales to surface directly below, as opposed to flying in slow, tight circles over the water, hoping to be above a whale when it finally surfaces to breathe.

The wide range data forms posed a challenge for ongoing work. When Rowntree moved to Utah, she found herself managing five filing cabinets with tens of thousands of 35mm film photos covering the first 34 years of the project. At  risk of fire or other disasters, the collection had limited access, especially for her Argentine colleagues. Now, with the help of a grant from the Committee on Library Information Resources, the U’s Marriott Library, has digitized the irreplaceable foundation of the project’s ever-growing database for scientists worldwide which, among quality-check assignments by scientists will also prove helpful in the development of artificial intelligence software to automate individual whale identification. (Read the story about this digitization project.)

Tourist whale watching

Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas

When the PV right whale project began, there was only one whale watching company at Valdes Peninsula, now there are five. The research project has drawn exponential numbers of tourists worldwide to the area, as there is no other place to predictably see whales up close in their natural habitat. “This study contributes hugely to it [tourism] because of the added value for the tourists going out on a boat,” Seger says.“There’s a naturalist [on board] who knows all this stuff.”

News about the right whales is a source of pride and joy for Argentines. Media regularly contact the research team and ask for stories about the whales to share broadly. Rowntree adds, “…we have these whale nights with the whale-watch operators in a room not big enough to hold it, and people are all sitting around on the edge. The captains report what they’ve seen and what the researchers have learned and what science has gone on… .” These packed community presentations are fueled by empanadas and extend well into the early morning hours.

At its core, the PV right whale project is a labor of love from local students. “Vicky saw early on,” says Seger, “that these wonderful young college-age volunteers who would show up to work for a few weeks should be raising their sights and thinking about getting Ph.D.s and starting their own research projects. Now,” continues Seger,  “… five or six have come to the States for graduate study with Vicky’s encouragement and help in finding labs.”

Two of these students earned their Ph.D.s at the U, and most are now faculty at different Argentine universities. They and their volunteers and students are now responsible for most of the front-line research work and represent the PV right whales nationally and internationally. The project is now directed by the Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas, an Argentine non-profit founded in the 1990s, in collaboration with the American non-profit Ocean Alliance, which was founded by Payne in the 1970s.

A living legacy

With the digitization the project’s analog photos and supporting data, Seger stresses that “this isn’t just a historical archive of some wonderful study that’s now fading back into the mists of history. It’s an ongoing research project that we all want to go on for another 50 years, at least.” As data accumulate each year, they show more and more clearly how the PV right whale population has continued to grow, despite serious ecological challenges.

The involvement and education of local students are crucial for the longevity of the project because, Rowntree says, “… [T]hey’re the ones that can affect the conservation of the right whales… .” In addition to keeping the research project running, these young advocates  represent their population at International Whaling Commission meetings and influence policy changes that will conserve whales and their marine habitats.

This living body of right whale research  grows year-to-year and will continue to illuminate a wide variety of basic scientific and urgent practical issues such as the effects of climate change and increasing commercial boat traffic.  Far from a relic, the research gets its power directly from its continuity, which has been sustained in large part by Victoria Rowntree’s unflagging curiosity and dedication over half a century.

By Lauren Wigod
Science Writer Intern