Whale Threads: Five Questions Answered

The deaths of nearly 200 pilot whales on a Tasmanian beach have renewed questions about the causes of such mass strandings and whether they can be prevented.

With the help of Karen Stocken, a whale stranding expert at Massey University of New Zealand, here are answers to five key questions:

What causes mass delinquency?

Scientists are still trying to solve that. They know that there are multiple types of delinquency events, with many interpretations that can overlap. Causes can be natural, based on bathymetry – the shape of the ocean floor – or they can be species-specific.

Pilot whales and many species of baby dolphins have been known to regularly clump strands, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, according to Stockin. In some cases, a sick whale headed toward shore and a whole group inadvertently followed them.

Does it happen in certain areas?

There are a few global hotspots. In the southern hemisphere, Tasmania and New Zealand’s Golden Bay have seen several cases, and in the northern hemisphere, Cape Cod Bay in the United States, Massachusetts, is another hotspot.

In those areas, there are similarities between the topography of the beaches and the environmental conditions. For example, Cape Cod and Golden Bay share a prominent narrow coastal feature and shallow waters with large tidal differences. Some people call these areas “whale traps” because of how quickly the tide can recede.

Are threads becoming more popular?

Probably. Delinquency is a natural phenomenon and has been documented since the days of Aristotle. However, ocean health has deteriorated in recent decades.

Delinquency can become more common with increased human use of the seas, shipping traffic, and chemical pollution.

Epidemiological diseases – outbreaks of disease affecting a particular animal species – can lead to more. There is still much to understand about this phenomenon, Stocken said.

Is climate change a factor?

Research on how climate change affects marine mammals is still in its infancy. Experts know that climate change can lead to changes in the distribution of prey and predators. For some species, this may cause the whales to come close to shore.

For example, recent research based on current climate prediction models indicates that by 2050, the distribution of sperm whales and blue whales in New Zealand could vary significantly.

Can threads be prevented?

Not right. Since threads occur for a variety of reasons, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But Stockin said that with a better understanding of whether human-caused changes are causing more mass delinquency, and how solutions can be found.

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