A new study offers a glimpse into the state of mind of North Atlantic right whales when they are trapped and dying in fishing gear.
By measuring hormone levels in the collected feces of the endangered whales, scientists have determined the animals’ stress levels are “sky-high.”
“What it tells us is that there is extreme physical trauma and extreme suffering going on,” said Rosalind Rolland, a senior scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium and the lead author of the study.
“Because these hormone levels aren’t just a slight elevation — they are through-the-roof elevated.”
‘It’s not a subtle thing, it’s an ‘Oh, my God, this animal is really, really, in trouble.”
– Rosalind Rolland, New England Aquarium scientist
The presence of the stress hormones was measured in the feces of 125 individual North Atlantic right whales over 15 years, including six chronically entangled whales, a live stranded whale and five other whales that were killed by ship strikes.
Hormone levels, including the textbook “fight-or-flight” hormone cortisol, were recorded as being very high in animals that suffered a slow death but not in those that died suddenly from collisions with vessels.
Rolland said the study is the first of its kind to look exclusively at what North Atlantic right whales go through while tangled in fishing lines. Whales have died as a result of the entanglement.
“A lot of entanglements occur in this population,” she said. “Eighty-three per cent of this population of North Atlantic right whales has been entangled in fishing gear at some point, and 50 per cent at least twice.”
As a veterinarian, Rolland said she wasn’t qualified to speak to what similar levels of the stress hormones would be like in humans, but she was able to compare their impact on other animals.
“If I saw these types of cortisol levels in a dog or a cat or a horse, I would be completely floored and very alarmed,” Rolland said. “It’s not a subtle thing, it’s an ‘Oh, my God, this animal is really, really, in trouble.'”
The North Atlantic right whale population suffered devastating losses this year when 16 of the whales were found dead. There are only about 450 North Atlantic…