A Forensics-Type Approach to Examining and Predicting the Health of Critically Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales Throughout Time

Amy Apprill, Marine Chemistry & Geochemistry
Carolyn Miller, Marine Chemistry & Geochemistry

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Abstract

The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is a critically endangered marine mammal with a population size of less than 500 individuals.  This species resides off the coast of the eastern United States and Canada and has suffered high mortality from ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements.  In addition to enduring periods of low reproduction and poor body condition, these whales experience periods of high prevalence of skin lesions, but there have been no studies on the skin microbiology of this species.  Here we propose to conduct the first characterization of the microbiome of an entire wildlife population throughout time.  We will investigate the skin microbiomes (specifically bacteria and fungi) of North Atlantic right whales using an archive of samples collected over the past 30 years from the majority of the population.  The skin microbiomes will be analyzed within the context of sighting locations, life histories, population genetics, body condition and other indices of health, including skin appearance, also collected over the past 30 years.  This microbiological forensics-type approach will be used to address questions regarding how the skin microbiome correlates with other measures of individual animal health, how microbes are transmitted within the population, and the role of microbes in skin lesions.  As we address these questions, a baseline of the North Atlantic right whale skin microbiome will be elucidated, from which differences associated with future changes to the health of this population can be readily detected.  The data and findings from this project will become part of the North Atlantic right whale databases, which is important to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium’s efforts to share information to protect and conserve this endangered species.  This unique research will support valuable collaborations between the co-PI’s and the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, a community of scientists, managers, educators, and industry from more than 30 organizations that meets yearly to discuss and share the progress of this population.  This research also will provide an important steppingstone to private and public funding opportunities.