The Mystery of Whale Eyesight and (Big) Things that Go Bump in the Night

TUE, MAY 10, 2016 (43:48)

Both right and humpback whales get entangled in fishing gear along the east coast of the U.S. at rates that are unsustainable for these endangered species. Failure to solve this problem may jeopardize the viability of several fisheries. Dr. Scott Kraus, New England Aquarium's Vice President of Research, and his team set out to study why whales don’t see ropes and avoid them. They wondered if ropes can be developed that provide whales a visual deterrent, thereby averting entanglements. In addition, they knew that most knowledge about whale behavior was primarily derived from daylight observations. Since most terrestrial mammals exhibit diurnal changes in behavior, it is reasonable to expect changes in whale behavior at night. Do those changes put whales at risk of encounters with fishing gear? The questions then multiplied! Do they see color? Can they see at night or in the darkest depths of the ocean? How small an object can they see?

Whales live in a world where visibility is rarely more than 40 feet, and most people believe they find their way around by sound. In fact, their use of sound is critical, but for close-up interactions with neighbors, feeding, and collision avoidance, vision may be even more important. Dr. Kraus discusses the findings of his team's field and laboratory experiments to develop an understanding of what whales see, offering ways these findings may help reduce fatal entanglements by large whales in fishing gear.

(Photo: Flickr/Mass. Office of Energy & Environmental Affairs, image cropped

+ BIO: Scott Kraus

Scott Kraus is Vice President of Research at the New England Aquarium, where he has conducted a wide range of research on North Atlantic Right Whale biology and conservation since 1980. The photocatalog of individual right whales that he created has been the cornerstone of many current studies.

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