HPU scientists pioneer research on rare whale

October 09, 2012

New research from Hawai‘i Pacific University on a rarely documented whale has central Pacific scientists on alert for a disease which may affect the mortality rate of dolphins and other marine mammal species.

Figure 1a
Figure 1a: A Longman’s beaked whale (Indopacetus pacificus) was stranded on Maui on March 22, 2010. Right lateral head view.
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Figure 1b
Figure 1b: Dorsal surface with multiple, fresh cookie cutter shark bites. The small sharks gouge out little sections of marine animals to feed, including this whale on Maui.
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Figure 1c
Figure 1c: Ventral surface view with a high density of fresh cookie cutter shark bites in the caudal region (near the tail) of the abdomen.
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Figure 1d
Figure 1d: Right lateral view that illustrates the coloration pattern and the severely fractured mandible.
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The Longman’s beaked whale (Indopacetus pacificus) is one of the world’s most least studied whales, said Hawai‘i Pacific Associate Professor of Biology Kristi West, Ph.D. Following a stranding of the species on the Hawaiian island of Maui in 2010, West’s team conducted the most in-depth research on the whale ever done.

Due to the rarity of this species, a necropsy and a number of follow-up analyses were conducted. Before this stranding, very little data existed about the whale, said West, who was a post-doctoral fellow at the National Zoo and Natural History Museum at the Smithsonian Institution.

“As of 1999, the species was only known from two skulls, one in a museum in Australia and another in Somalia. There were absolutely no photographs to accompany the skulls so that left us with no idea of what Longman’s beaked whales look like,” West said.

West added that the Australian skull dated from around the 1890s. “The record keeping at the time was not great.”

The HPU Marine Mammal Stranding Program took advantage of the rare opportunity to examine the seldom seen cetacean. Brenda Jensen, Ph.D., associate professor of biology and associate dean of HPU’s College of Natural and Computational Sciences, was among the collaborators on the paper. Jensen called their experience with the whale, which had a severely fractured mandible, “invaluable,” expanding the base of knowledge on the species. She noted it was “exciting to get the genetic studies” of a whale never stranded in the United States before.

The results are reported in their new paper “A Longman’s Beaked Whale (Indopacetus pacificus) strands in Maui, Hawai‘i with first case of morbillivirus in the Central Pacific,” to be published in the leading journal Marine Mammal Science.

“This is the first time morbillivirus has been found in a marine mammal from the central Pacific,” West said. Morbillivirus has been linked to cetacean deaths elsewhere, including recently in Mediterranean waters.

“The surprising finding of morbillivirus in the Longman’s beaked whale generates many questions about the history and prevalence of this disease in Hawai‘i and the potential impact on Hawaiian marine mammal populations,” according to their report.

“Although morbillivirus has been found in Hawaiian waters, the actual risk of infection and impacts to native Hawaiian marine mammal populations is currently under investigation,” said David Schofield, Marine Mammal Health and Response Program manager for NOAA, who also collaborated on the paper.

Previously, the disease was not part of analysis of tissues after marine mammal necropsies conducted in the islands because there was no reason to check for it, West explained.

West said that marine mammal strandings here now include screening for morbillivirus. The additional tests take time and money, but the threat to ocean systems — no matter how remote — warrant the caution.

“Stranding programs, such as that at HPU, play an important role in increasing our knowledge of disease risk in marine mammal populations,” Schofield said. “We commend HPU’s efforts to better understand the cause of death and presence of diseases in marine mammals of Hawai‘i and look forward to continued partnership with them in our Marine Mammal Stranding Network.”

Both HPU scientists said that the thoroughness of the research adds significantly to literature on the rare Longman’s beaked whale. Textbooks that have only a few pages on the species can now be updated with far more information, including that the Longman’s beaked whale can be found in Hawaiian waters.

The Prescott Grant Program funded this research work. West, Jensen and Schofield collaborated with Susan Sanchez, Department of Infectious Diseases, College of Veterinary Medicine University of Georgia Athens; David Rotstein; Kelly M. Robertson, Protected Resources Division, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Services, NOAA; Sophie Dennison, Marine Mammal Radiology; Gregg Levine; Nicole Davis, Pacific Islands Regional Office, National Marine Fisheries Service; and Charles W. Potter, Department of Vertebrate Zoology National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

An early view of the paper will be here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1748-7692/earlyview.

Photos courtesy of HPU and NOAA, NOAA Permit # 932-1905

Kristi West speaks on HPU's Rare Whale Research

Brenda Jensen  speaks on HPU's Rare Whale Research