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North Atlantic right whales struggling to make themselves heard, new research suggests

July 13, 2010 | 12:00 pm

Much like humans struggling to make themselves heard by companions in a loud restaurant, North Atlantic right whales must raise their voices to compensate for the increasing volume of ambient noise in the ocean, according to new research.

North Atlantic right whales, an endangered species, live primarily in the waters off eastern Canada and the U.S. The whales frequent areas with a high level of commercial, naval and recreational shipping traffic, according to Susan Parks, lead author of the study. Compounding the problem, Parks says, is the fact that commercial ships generate noise at the same frequency as the whales' calls.

The study, which has been published in the July issue of Biology Letters, followed 14 North Atlantic right whales living in Canada's Bay of Fundy. It found that the whales "are compensating for increased ocean noise by going up in volume when they call to one another, which is basically the same thing that humans do when they're trying to talk in really noisy bars," according to Joseph Gaydos of the SeaDoc Society at UC Davis, who was not involved in the study.

The research brings up new and troubling questions. Since right whales rely far more on sound than sight or other senses, will increased noise levels eventually force them to remain closer together in order to communicate with one another? If so, scientists speculate, the area where the whales mate and search for food could shrink substantially.

Learn more about the new study on North Atlantic right whales' increasing volume in reporter Jessie Schiewe's recent story in The Times.

-- Lindsay Barnett

Video: An adult North Atlantic right whale and its calf swim in the Bay of Fundy. Credit: bpatricksullivan via YouTube

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