Saving the whales -- how scientists measure success

Sex and the single whale?

Whale sex does not immediately come to mind when one pulls up behind a "Save the Whales" bumper sticker.

But since reproduction is one key to preventing extinction, whale behavior is one area scientists are studying to ascertain why some whale populations are growing and others are not.

Certain whales populations are not recovering their numbers and may be on the road to extinction, according to scientists, who point out that the plight of large mammals tends to garner the greatest public attention -- and conservation resources.

"Social dysfunction," failure to find a mate, and to reproduce successfully may result from the small population size of the western North Atlantic right whales -- which number only 350 or so individuals -- according to the July/August issue of American Scientist. However that idea is a controversial one, particularly since human threats, or a combination of factors may be the cause.

The article analyzes the status of three whale species in detail. Lead author Leah Gerber is a wildlife ecologist and post-doctoral fellow at the National Center for Environmental Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She studies subtleties of whale behavior, especially Humpback whales of the North Pacific. Back at the office -- an international think tank on ecology -- she works on ways to convert that knowledge into conservation decisions.

Her article, "Measuring Success in Conservation," a nine-page analysis with assessments of the status of various whale populations and efforts to protect them, poses many of the key questions of ecologists and those charged with species protection.

"We are becoming more and more aware of the status and decline of biodiversity, but we need novel approaches to understanding this decline and rational decisions about conserving imperiled populations," said Gerber.

"Every year, populations of plants, inse

Contact: Gail Brown
University of California - Santa Barbara

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