By Dr. Laura Thompson, Mystic Aquarium Researcher
Today, February 9, is World Whale Day. Founded in Maui, Hawaii, in 1980 as part of the Pacific Whale Foundation’s Maui Whale Festival, World Whale Day was a way to honor humpback whales. The recognition on this day has expanded beyond the humpback due to the ever-increasing need to conserve many species of whales facing threats like climate change, habitat loss, pollution and more.
As a researcher, days like these are meaningful as they shine a spotlight on the need for conservation and education to help protect species like the beluga whale. In fact, it is this need to better understand human impacts on ocean life and inform conservation efforts that drives my life’s work.
Whales and dolphins, including belugas, are changing their dive patterns in response to human disturbances, such as noise, as well as a changing environment and shifting distributions of prey, leading them to dive deeper and longer, or sometimes unexpectedly ending a dive early. I am interested in the potential health effects of such changes in behavior.
We know that diving presents several challenges which can lead to illness and serious injury, such as decompression sickness. In humans, activity of the immune system plays an important role in the development of these conditions. While marine mammals don’t seem to be as affected by such conditions under normal circumstances, we know almost nothing about how marine mammal immune systems function during normal dives.
Using blood samples collected from the belugas at Mystic Aquarium, as well as animals in the wild, I can expose immune cells to simulate “dives” in the laboratory. By altering the pressure that cells are exposed to and introducing nitrogen gas bubbles to the samples, it is my hope to understand how beluga immune cells function during normal dive patterns and under extreme conditions.
Understanding how the beluga immune system is adapted to diving, will provide information on how they avoid dive related injury under normal conditions and also allow us to better evaluate whether human disturbances are impacting their ability to dive without health consequences.
I started this research while in graduate school pursuing my PhD. Being able to develop this entirely new focus in marine mammal research based on my specific interests was an exciting opportunity, and I’m proud to say we have some of the first and only studies on marine mammal immune function in the context of diving and dive related injury.
I love working with belugas and they are a great model for dive studies as they are very capable divers, but are at risk of changing their normal dive patterns as climate change melts sea ice and warms waters, leading to changes in their prey and increased human presence. Working directly with belugas at Mystic, and in the wild, has been an incredible opportunity to learn about these amazing animals and keep reminded of the important natural resources we are trying to conserve.