The North Atlantic Right Whale: the most endangered of all large whales

This month we will be discussing a baleen whale. Baleen whales are typically large in size, use low-frequency vocalizations, and have baleen plates. They are made up of keratin that continuously grow and wear down, just like our hair and fingernails. More specifically, this month, we will discuss the North Atlantic Right Whale.

Who is the North Atlantic Right Whale?

North Atlantic Right Whales (Eubalaena glacialis) are similar to the other species of right whales, the northern pacific right whale, and southern right whale. They have a stout body, short broad pectoral flippers, and no dorsal fin. Their flukes, or whale tail, are broad with a fairly deep center notch. Flukes are made up of two lobes each called a fluke. Their unique characterizations come from their callosities, which appear on their head. Callosities are calcified grey skin patches. They turn white when large colonies of whale lice, whale barnacles, and parasitic worms reside on them.

Where does the North Atlantic Right Whale live?

Found primarily in the North Atlantic, there only about 400 left in its total species count. This chalks them up to be one of the world’s most endangered large whales. For the western Atlantic, they have a distribution along the North American coast as far south as Florida and as far north as Canada, off Nova Scotia. Their feeding grounds, during the spring/summer months, extend from Grand Manan Basin (Bay of Fundy), Roseway Basin (off southwestern Nova Scotia), and the coast of New England. They travel over 1,000 miles to their calving grounds, off Cape Fear, North Carolina, or below Cape Canaveral, Florida. This is where they feed and nurse their offspring during the winter months. North Atlantic right whales live to at least 70 years (possibly as long as 100 years) and can be aged, after death, using their earwax.

What does it eat?

They are filter feeders which means they engulf huge amounts of water and prey. Once they have engulfed the water, they contract their throat muscles, also known as throat grooves, to get rid of that water, and keep the prey. The North Atlantic Right Whales swim with their mouths open and capture prey in their angled baleen through which the water flows, like a sieve. They feed primarily on shrimp-like krill and small fish.

Threats to the Population

As early as the 11th century, humans hunted right whales marking them one of the first species targeted during the Whaling area. Designated by whalers, the term ‘right whale’ meant, back then, the “right whale to kill.” They were easy targets because they are slow-moving, reside close to the shore, and float when they die. They were a special prize for whalers because of the large quantities of oil and baleen the hunters could harvest. Baleen made up corsets, parasols, etc., while the main ingredient for cosmetics and lamps was oil, at the time. Brought to the brink of extinction, the International Whaling Convention (IWC) sanctioned for their protection in the 1930s. Even after whaling stopped, the Northern Pacific and North Atlantic populations never fully recovered. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List lists them as endangered.

north atlantic right whale
Rescue team removing fishing gear from an entangled right whale. Image by NOAA via Wikimedia Commons

Presently, human activity, or “anthropogenic” activity, is still the number one threat to the northern right whale. Highly populated with human activity, there is high shipping vessel traffic as well as highly profitable fishing grounds in their habitats. Thus, the main causes of death for the North Atlantic Right whale are vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglement. Other effects on the species success are noise pollution, habitat degradation, prey distribution/abundance, and climate change.

You can check our post on the main anthropogenic threats to baleen whales here.

If you want to discover a bit more on the Northern Right Whale:

Thanks for Reading!

Naomi Mathew is a PhD student at University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She works on bioacoustics in marine mammals from the Gulf of Mexico. She is the co-founder of Whale Scientists. You can read more about her here

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