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Identifying the Right Whales

Genetic testing of right whales has led researchers to re-think when calves may separate from their mothers, the Boston Globe reports.

It adds that researchers monitoring North American right whales, which are critically endangered, had assumed that when a mother appeared at the feeding grounds without a calf the same year that calf was born, that the calf had died. A new study appearing in Mammalian Biology suggests, though, that that assumption may not always be correct.

Researchers from the US and Canada have been photographing the whales for decades and are able to pick many of them out year after year based on identifying features, and they have also been collecting genetic data both from dead and living whales for analysis. By merging these two datasets, the researchers found that some calves that were presumed to be dead were in fact alive but had separated from their mothers earlier than expected.

"I don't think it will have a big impact on the actual survival estimates because it's just a few animals," lead author Philip Hamilton from the New England Aquarium tells the Globe. "But everything helps to make our estimates more precise. And all of those estimates are built into assessments of, you know, what do we need in the way of protections for this species in order for them to survive?"