Right Whales

What are some potential challenges and risks biologists experience when studying North Atlantic Right Whales? How do right whales find each other when it is time to mate? What can be done to conserve this endangered species?

This audio is part of the One Species at a Time series hosted by Ari Daniel and produced by Atlantic Public Media and the Encyclopedia of Life, with the support from the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0.

Story Length: 5:35

Download transcript of audio.

Download and print this lesson plan.

  • Objectives

    Students will know and be able to…

    • Discuss difficulties, challenges, risks, and rewards of studying right whales.
    • Describe how males and females find each other during mating season.
    • Discuss reasons that right whales are endangered and discuss attempts to conserve this species.
    • Identify the sex and reproductive status of right whales based on fecal hormone content by producing and interpreting graphical data.
  • Student Background

    This lesson requires no additional information.  This could serve as an introduction to the discussion of animal communication.

    Vocabulary terms:

    Baleen- a series of bristles found in the moth of some whales that is used to filter microorganisms out of the water.  Baleen is made out of keratine, the substance that makes up our fingernails.

    Baleen whales- the group of whales that use baleen to filter feed on marine microorganisms.

    Surface active group- a group of male and female right whales that gather to start the mating process.

    Playback- a scientific technique that involves recording the sound of an animal and they playing the recording back in the environment so that you can observe the recipients’  behavior.

    Breaching- a behavior observed in whales when they leap almost entirely out of the water before splashing back down.

    Endangered species- a species that is considered by scientists to have a high risk of going extinct.

  • Materials

  • Lesson Plan

    1) Listening Guide

    Biologists studying right whales face the challenge of studying rare, extremely large organisms that spend the majority of their time underwater.  This study and accompanying materials and lessons explore some of the challenges and risks of studying right whales and explores the reasons that scientists are willing to work so hard to study them.  In addition, the story discusses an experiment designed to learn how male and female right whales find each other during mating season.

    2) Listening Prompts for Students

    a. How are scientists able to observe right whales?

    b. What is the main question that the scientists wish to answer?

    c. How did they try to answer this question?

    d. What was the result of playing female calls?

    e. What unexpected thing happened that scared the scientists?

    f. Do you think that the whale was attempting to injure the scientists?

    g. Why is it so important to learn more about reproduction of right whales?

    3) Play the One Species at a Time Podcast

    4) Reading Guide

    Right whales are large baleen whales that feed by filtering plankton out of the water.   Although the spend much of their life living alone, right whales sometimes form groups so they have a variety of calls to communicate with other members of their species.  Right whales are considered to be an endangered species.

    5) Reading Prompts for Students

    a. What is the purpose of “baleen”?

    b. What organisms are able to prey on right whales?  What behaviors do right whales have to attempt to defend themselves from predators?

    c. Why were right whales especially easy for humans to capture?

    d. What are other important sources of mortality of right whales?

    e. How many North Atlantic right whales are thought to remain in the wild?

    f. What has been done to try to protect this endangered species?

    6) Read the Encyclopedia of Earth Article

    North Atlantic Right Whale

    7) Watch Video (37 sec)

    Breaching Right Whale. New England Aquarium right Whale Research Program

    8) Lesson

    Total lesson time: 90 minutes

    Listening Time: 5:34

     

    Class Activities:

    1. What would it be like being a biologist that studies right whales?

    Put students in small groups of 2 – 3.  Have each group discuss the good aspects and bad aspects of studying right whales.  Have each group come up with a list of three good things and three bad things about studying right whales.  Have each student write a paragraph answering the question- “Would you like to study right whales? Why or why not?”

    Note for Teachers: Question 1 of this lesson plan is similar to the first question addressed in the Killer Whale Lesson Plan.  If you have already discussed the difficulty in studying killer whales, then you might either (1) have a general discussion about how difficult it is to study wide-ranging marine species in general or (2) skip this question and move on to Question 2.

     

    2.  Right whales are considered to be endangered species.   How many right whales remain?  What are the main sources of mortality of right whales?  What roles have humans had in endangering right whales?  Why is it important to learn more about right whale reproduction?  What can be done to help conserve right whales?  Have each student write a paragraph discussing- “Why are right whales at a risk of extinction and what can be done to help conserve them?”

     

    3. How do male and female whales locate each other when it is time to mate?

    Right whales typically travel alone or in small groups.  Before mating, male and female right whales gather together in groups known as ‘surface active groups” that may contain up to 30 – 40 individuals.   The ocean is a very big place, so how do males and females find each other?

    Have students discuss possible ways that males and females find each other during mating season.  Possible hypotheses include (1) males and females gather at certain locations at certain times of the year, (2) that males attract females by making some sort of signal (by sound, vision, or smell), or (3) that females attract males by making some sort of signal (by sound, vision, or smell).  Which means of communication would be most effective for whales?  (have the students think about the difference between communication between whales living in the water and people living on land.  For example, sound travels much farther through water than does light.)  Have students write a paragraph discussing ways that males and females might find each other.

     

    Thinking Like a Scientist: Have students discuss what observations or experiments would help to support or reject our three hypotheses?

    What experiment did the scientists in the podcast conduct? What happened when they played female calls?  What did the scientists conclude about what causes right whales to form surface active groups.  Have the student write a paragraph discussing how the playback experiment helped us to understand right whale behavior.

     

    Extension:

    Studying large marine mammals such as right whales presents a challenge to scientists.  Thus, scientists have had to come up with clever ways to study them.  Because they are an endangered species, scientists would like to improve our understanding of right whale reproduction.  If would be useful to know the reproductive status of female whales (e.g., are they pregnant, lactating, or non-reproductive).  One way to determine reproductive status is to look at the concentration of hormones (chemicals) in the blood.  However, it is difficult to collect blood from right whales.

     

    Scientists have learned that hormones can move from the blood into the feces, so it is possible to estimate hormonal concentrations in the blood by examining hormone concentrations in feces.  Fortunately for right whale scientists, right whale feces floats to the surface so scientists are able to collect the feces (don’t you wish you had this job?!?) and then analyze them to determine the concentration of hormones in the feces in order to determine the sex and the reproductive status of right whales.

     

    This data comes from the following paper.

    Assessing reproductive status of right whales (Eubalaenaglacialis) using fecal hormone metabolites.R.M. Rolland, K.E. Hunt, S. D. Kraus, and S. K. Wasser. (2005) General and Comparative Endocrinology.142:308 – 317. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2005.02.002

    The data in this table lists the average hormone concentration measured in nanograms of hormone per gram of dried feces (ng/g) for all males and  non-reproductive, pregnant, and lactating females that were sampled.

     

    Females                                   Males

    Non-reproductive       Pregnant          Lactating                                             .                       (ng/g)                           (ng/g)               (ng/g)                        (ng/g)

    Estrogen                      57                                38,237             1245                95

    Progestins                   295                              201,240           273                  333

    Androgen                    1245                            8798                3011                10,203

    Looking at the Data

    1.  Drawing graphs.

    a) how does hormone level depend on sex?  (compare non-reproducing females with males)

    b) how does the level of the different hormones depend on the reproductive status of females?  (compare one hormone at a time)

    c) do the different hormones show the same pattern of change over the reproductive cycle?

     

    Graph Interpretation Questions.

    a) How does hormone level depend on sex?

    bi) How does the level of estrogen depend on the reproductive status of the female?

    bii) How does the level of progestins depend on the reproductive status of the female?

    b iii) How does the level of androgens depend on the reproductive status of the female?

    c) Do different hormones show the same pattern of change over the reproductive cycle?

     

    Biology Question

    Can scientist determine the sex and reproductive status of right whales based on hormone levels?

    To answer this question, students need to answer the following questions.

    • What hormone pattern is found in males?
    • What hormone pattern is found in non-reproducing females?
    • What hormone pattern is found in pregnant females?
    • What hormone pattern is found in lactating females?

    Is there a distinct pattern of hormone concentration associated with each of the four types of whales?  Have the students discuss how they could use fecal hormone concentration to determine the sex or reproductive status of a right whale.  Have each student write a paragraph describing their conclusions.

    Biology Practice:

    Scientists are interested in determining the sex and reproductive status of an unknown group of 5 right whales.  They are able to collect feces and analyze hormone content.

    Let’s see if you can identify the sex and reproductive status of the following individuals based on their fecal hormone content?

    Individual                    Estrogen          Progestins       Androgens      

    .                               (ng/g)               (ng/g)               (ng/g)

    1                              102                  315                  12,265

    2                              35, 432            210,387           9034

    3                              215                  265                  2144

    4                              115                  350                  9,876

    5                              39,492             198,346           8645

     

  • Homework Socrative Quiz

    Tell students to listen to the public radio story at home. Then assign a Socrative Assessment or written homework.

    socrative logo
    Short answer quiz: SOC-3939007

    Socrative.com allows you to give quizzes through any device or browser and get graded score reports immediately sent to you! To learn how to use Socrative shared quizzes, view this tutorial.

    Or tell students to listen to the Public Radio Story at home and answer the following questions:

    a. How are scientists able to observe right whales?

    b. What is the main question that the scientists wish to answer?

    c. How did they try to answer this question?

    d. What was the result of playing female calls?

    e. What unexpected thing happened that scared the scientists?

    f. Do you think that the whale was attempting to injure the scientists?

    g. Why is it so important to learn more about reproduction of right whales?

  • Assessment Evidence

    Students’ written answers and participation in group discussion.

  • Standards

    Common Core Standards: Speaking and Listening

    Grade 6

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.6.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 6 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.6.1a Come to discussions prepared, having read or studied required material; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion.

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.6.1b Follow rules for collegial discussions, set specific goals and deadlines, and define individual roles as needed.

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.6.1c Pose and respond to specific questions with elaboration and detail by making comments that contribute to the topic, text, or issue under discussion.

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.6.1d Review the key ideas expressed and demonstrate understanding of multiple perspectives through reflection and paraphrasing.

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.6.2 Interpret information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and explain how it contributes to a topic, text, or issue under study.

     

    Grade 7

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.7.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 7 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.7.1a Come to discussions prepared, having read or researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion.

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.7.1b Follow rules for collegial discussions, track progress toward specific goals and deadlines, and define individual roles as needed.

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.7.1c Pose questions that elicit elaboration and respond to others’ questions and comments with relevant observations and ideas that bring the discussion back on topic as needed.

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.7.1d Acknowledge new information expressed by others and, when warranted, modify their own views.

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.7.2 Analyze the main ideas and supporting details presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and explain how the ideas clarify a topic, text, or issue under study.

     

    Grade 8

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.8.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 8 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.8.1a Come to discussions prepared, having read or researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion.

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.8.1b Follow rules for collegial discussions and decision-making, track progress toward specific goals and deadlines, and define individual roles as needed.

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.8.1c Pose questions that connect the ideas of several speakers and respond to others’ questions and comments with relevant evidence, observations, and ideas.

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.8.1d Acknowledge new information expressed by others, and, when warranted, qualify or justify their own views in light of the evidence presented.

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.8.2 Analyze the purpose of information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and evaluate the motives (e.g., social, commercial, political) behind its presentation.

     

    Common Core Standards: Other Standards

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.7 Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a flowchart, diagram, model, graph, or table).

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.8 Distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in a text.

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.2 Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes.

    CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.7.4 Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with pertinent descriptions, facts, details, and examples; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.

     

    Next Generation Science Standards

    MS-LS2-2. Construct an explanation that predicts patters of interactions among organisms across multiple ecosystems.

    MS-LS2-5. Evaluate competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services.

    MS-ESS3-3. Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing human impact on the environment.

  • Other Resources

    North Atlantic right whales (Scientific name: Eubalaenaglacialis) is a species of marine mammal from the order Cetacea (dolphins, porpoises, and whales) that lives in the northern Atlantic Ocean.  North Atlantic right whales are extremely large whales.  The maximum length of females (18 m) is greater than the maximum length of males (13 m) and a large individual can weigh over 95,000 kg.   Right whales are filter feeders that use their baleen to filter copepods and krill out of the water.  They may consume over 2000 kg of food each day.  Current populations are estimated to be between 300 – 350 individuals.  Because they are slow moving and feed near shore they were easy prey for early whalers.  Today the North Atlantic right whale is considered to be an endangered species according the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

     

    North Atlantic Right Whale

    The articles can help provide context for information on right whales:

    Atlantic Ocean

    Bay of Fundy

    Marine mammal

    Cetacea

    Balenidae

    Marine biomes

    Endangered species

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