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New Marine Mammal Center Formed at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution


September 18, 2008

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) has announced the formation of a new center for marine mammal research and conservation studies. The center combines scientific expertise, state-of-the-art facilities, and technological innovations to address both basic questions about marine mammal behavior, physiology and health as well as potential effects of human activities on marine mammals and the ecosystems on which they depend.

At its core, the Marine Mammal Center (MMC) is a diverse group of scientists and engineers who employ sophisticated technologies at sea and in the laboratory. These include laboratories for development of non-invasive devices for data collection, remotely operated observation platforms, and a unique in-house facility that combines a Computerized Tomography (CT) scanner with specially designed animal handling equipment, necropsy space, freezers, and chillers for state of the art diagnostic analyses. The MMC combines scientific expertise with novel applications of technologies and tools such as gliders, sound propagation models, and biomedical and habitat visualizations.

The projects conducted at WHOI involve challenging issues that affect many parts of our society, including disease transmission between humans and marine animals, the impacts of climate change on marine populations, particularly the polar bear, methods to decrease entanglements of whales in fishing gear, and how to reduce the effects on marine mammals from sonar, ship strikes, and construction and exploration activities along our coasts and at sea.

“There has been such an expansion of conservation-related work at WHOI and work that can inform important policy decisions,” said Marine Mammal Center Director Peter Tyack, a senior scientist in the WHOI Biology Department. “Our goals for the MMC include helping our researchers to share data and develop new programs, and to make it easier for scientists to interact with other organizations and decision makers.”

Cross-institutional programs are already being developed with colleagues at Duke University, National Marine Life Center, Cape Cod Stranding Network (a project of the International Fund for Animal Welfare), and the New England Aquarium that are consistent with the MMC’s goal of improving our understanding of the animals and assisting their survival.

A recent example of how the MMC collaborations can have a significant effect is an unprecedented survey of 33 species of whales, dolphins, seals, porpoises, sharks, and seabirds on the U.S. East Coast that revealed a wide variety of disease-causing microbes — including many that have developed resistance to antibiotics and several that can be transmitted to humans — in marine wildlife. The research, published in August 2008, would not have been possible without multi-organization collaborations involving WHOI researchers, stranding networks, and fisheries managers that allowed samples from stranded and entrapped marine mammals to be analyzed at the WHOI necropsy facility. The newly established Marine Mammal Center will act as an umbrella for even more extensive collaborations that will enhance and expand such productive efforts.

In addition to fostering research and interdisciplinary collaborations, the MMC will act as a clearinghouse for science in the service of marine mammal conservation, and will support the education and training of the next generation of marine mammal scientists.

A gift from Pete and Ginny Nicholas and family catalyzed the MMC’s formation. Under the MMC’s auspices, researchers can develop collaborative proposals to be submitted to a broad range of government, industry, and private funders — a scenario that is important to ensuring the independence of the research and a focus on the most pressing questions.

“Society’s ignorance about the impact of threats like chemical or noise pollution makes it nearly impossible to manage the effects of human activities on the ocean environment,” said WHOI Director and President Susan Avery. “The new Marine Mammal Center brings the best science and technology to bear on understanding the threats and developing innovative conservation solutions.”

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, independent organization in Falmouth, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the oceans and their interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the oceans’ role in the changing global environment.