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SU biologist includes New England region in study of North Atlantic Right Whales

Susan ParksThe North Atlantic right whale is a highly endangered species of baleen whale found off the East coast of the United States. Fewer than 500 of these creatures are alive today, and an international conservation effort aims to reverse their decline.

Biologist Susan Parks has been studying right whales for the past 15 years, and she was recently appointed to the Department of Biology at SU’s College of Arts and Sciences. Parks studies whale acoustic communication, and for the next three years she’ll be investigating the acoustic behavior of North Atlantic right whale mother-calf pairs—conducting much of the research in Cape Cod Bay. Other focus areas include Florida and the Bay of Fundy, Canada. Read the Parks Lab Field blog.

There are currently several areas of concern relating to human interactions with whales and other marine mammals. The most critical risks may result in the injury or death of individual animals, for example, through collisions with vessels, entanglement in gear, and exposure to explosions and high-intensity sounds. Being able to detect the presence of an individual animal is critical to reducing the probability of these high-risk events.

Right whales regularly traverse regions with high levels of human activity, and there’s an urgent need to determine their presence in an area. Two major methods of detection are currently employed: visual surveys from aerial- or vessel-based platforms, and passive acoustic monitoring to detect vocalizations from right whales.

Despite these efforts to proactively detect whales, reproductively active females and their young offspring seem to be at an increased risk for collisions with vessels. Parks’s research will undertake an extensive study of the surface and acoustic behavior of right whale mother-calf pairs to assess what factors increase their vulnerability to collisions with vessels and determine how best to detect these individuals.

Sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, the study will span the entire development of the calf, comparing the behavior of extremely young right whales shortly after birth through their growing periods of independence prior to weaning in the late summer months. The study will address topics related to monitoring and mitigation of injury of right whales, acoustic propagation of baleen whale calls in multiple habitat areas, and basic scientific studies of the individual development of behavior in an endangered baleen whale.

The data collected in Parks’s study, which began in January 2012 and continues through September 2015, is expected to improve our understanding of the behavior of this highly endangered species, aiding in its protection and conservation. For more information on all of Parks’ studies, visit the Susan Parks Research Lab website.