How to save southern right whales from extinction - genetics hold the clue

29/10/2020 | 3 mins

Researchers from The University of Western Australia are part of a global team that has assembled the DNA of Southern Right Whales, which they believe will increase understanding of the magnificent creatures and may hold the clue to how we can save them from extinction in the future.

Southern Right Whales are cherished mammals who raise their young near the shorelines and call Australia their home. In WA, they are best observed at Flinders Bay in Augusta, where they begin their migration between June and September.

Their friendliness, entering shallow waters and swimming right up to people and vessels, nearly drove them to extinction in previous years, as they were exploited by hunters for their enormous blubber reserves. Their population of more than 100,000 in the 1700s, diminished to less than 400 in the 1920s.

Conservation efforts have improved their numbers since then, however increasing understanding of them is vital for their protection in the future.

Researchers from a global genome-mapping project called DNA Zoo have assembled the DNA of the whales, which they hope will help leaders and policy-makers better understand species through their DNA as well as threats to their survival.

Dr Parwinder Kaur, from UWA’s School of Agriculture and Environment, who is the Australian project lead for DNA Zoo, said offshore foraging grounds of the whales were not well understood, and much effort had gone into developing technology, such as satellite tracking, which is costly.

“This is why this project is important,” Dr Kaur said “By better understanding their DNA we can provide insight into how their behaviour is shaped through genetic patterns and what the greatest threats to their survival are.

“We can see they stay relatively true to migratory traditions, and it's a factor that shapes their genetic population structure and which we can learn a great deal from.”

This high-quality genome assembly will facilitate development of a genotyping panel to help understand the kin relationships of the whales, which in turn, can offer insight into their abundance and behaviour.

“The data we’ve collected will help pave the way for conservation and evolution studies, identify measures to aid protection and understand the impact of changing climates and habitats for them,” Dr Kaur said.

The project was part of a collaboration of DNA Zoo with the University of Auckland and British Antarctic Survey. It was funded by EU BEST, DARWIN PLUS, South Georgia Heritage Trust, Friends of South Georgia Island, WWF and supported by the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

The computational backbone to house the DNA data was provided by the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre with funding from the Australian Government and the Government of Western Australia. Read more about the DNA Zoo website here

Media references

Jess Reid, UWA Media & PR Adviser, 08 6488 6876

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