CSUCI researchers solve a whale of a puzzle
By Chris O’Neal
It’s a question that has bothered scientists since the first whale leapt out of the water and into the sky only to come splashing down again: What makes the ocean’s largest creature do such a thing?
A California State University, Channel Islands, researcher might finally have found an answer. After five years of study, biology lecturer Rachel Cartwright, Ph.D., has discovered that young whales in particular breach to strengthen diving capability, negating the long-held theory that whales breach as a form of play or socialization.
“Our research clearly demonstrates that extreme exercise, such as breaching, has an important role in the development of the ability to breath-hold for young baleen whales, allowing them to make longer dives,” Cartwright said.
A “baleen” whale filters plankton from ocean water using plates on baleen in its mouth, which is similar to keratin. There are 14 species of baleen whales, including the humpback and gray whales that are often seen in the Santa Barbara Channel.
The research, conducted with fellow biology lecturer Cori Newton, Ph.D., six CI undergraduate researchers and five supporting organizations, was published at the end of January in the Public Library of Science, an open-access, peer-reviewed online journal.
The researchers studied the bodies of deceased beached whales and determined that the exertion required to leap out of the ocean increases the level of myoglobin in young whales. Myoglobin carries oxygen in the muscles of whales as hemoglobin does in humans. Cartwright adds that breaching by older whales may be more social in nature.
Breaching, Cartwright said, resembles an underwater somersault, wherein the whale launches itself out of the water, turns and lands on its back.
“Exercise releases calcium in the muscle cells and that calcium is a trigger to this molecular pathway,” said Cartwright.
Biology major/chemistry minor Lila Hernandez, 22, took part in the research, analyzing muscle tissue samples in the lab. Research like this is what drew her to study at CSUCI, she said.
“Because it’s a smaller school, it gives students the opportunity to actually interact with the professor rather than sit in a class of 500 and just interact with the teacher’s assistant,” said Hernandez.
Part of the research utilized unmanned aerial vehicles, otherwise known as drones, to capture footage of whales. Channel Islands business lecturer Alan Jaeger and his brother Ryan Jaeger operated the drones and received special permission to operate them off the coast of Maui.
“Once we locate where the young whale is, we work with Dr. Cartwright and her team to hover the UAV at a safe and specific altitude so we can get the best imagery for aerial measurement,” said Alan.