• Current and novel tools in the health assessment of large whales

      Cates, Kelly Ann; Atkinson, Shannon; Bejder, Lars; Cunningham, Curry; Mueter, Franz; Straley, Janice (2021-08)
      Alaskan marine ecosystems are undergoing unprecedented change and species are facing increasingly variable and potentially inhospitable habitats. As top predators, marine mammals serve an important role as sentinels of ecosystem health. With their high site fidelity, abundant numbers, coastal presence and role as a top predator, humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) provide a meaningful view into current ecosystem conditions and processes. In order to tap into their usefulness as bioindicators the basic physiology of humpback whales needs to be understood. Physiological indices can provide valuable information about fecundity, survival, health and population age structuring which is fundamental to cetacean research and population management. However, such information is often difficult to obtain from wild cetaceans as they surface infrequently and often live in remote or logistically challenging locations. As such, few methods currently exist for the assessment of physiological parameters of free ranging, large cetaceans. This dissertation paired existing methods of physiological examination with novel approaches in order to better understand the basic physiology and overall health of humpback whales. Specifically, six enzyme immunoassays were validated for use in humpback whales for progesterone, testosterone, cortisol, corticosterone, aldosterone and DHEA-S, an algorithm termed "Morphometer" was developed to automate the process of measuring and analyzing morphometric measurements, and hormones and body condition metrics were paired to determine whether pregnancy status can be detected from aerial photographs. This project seeks to lay the groundwork for long term monitoring of humpback whales that can provide critical information to managers. By using baseline physiological indices and tools to rapidly analyze these metrics that I developed here, managers and researchers will be able to analyze current and future samples within a longitudinal context and make management decisions based on more accurate biological information for these populations.