Science is a marathon: what long-term opportunistic data can tell us about New Zealand sperm whales

We all have in mind these targeted and organized research projects, where scientists go into the field and collect specific data. But not everything in the scientific realm is as predictable as that. Some events, such as cetacean strandings, are unexpected and may only happen a few times per year. Still, there can be a lot of valuable data to collect if you know what to look for! This post describes the findings of our latest research on sperm whales in New Zealand.

Credit: DBL Wildlife

Sperm whale strandings in New Zealand

Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) are the largest species of toothed whales. They live in the waters around New Zealand and you can usually see them in the deep waters off Kaikoura, South Island. Sperm whale strandings have been happening in New Zealand since 1873; at least that is when scientists started to record them! In total, 596 sperm whales have stranded since then. The individuals can strand by themselves (single stranding events) or together, with other individuals (mass stranding events). Mass strandings are less common (24 recorded events) than single strandings (235 recorded events). Strandings can also tell us a lot about a species, including what kind of social groups they hang out in and what they eat.

The 2018 mass stranding

In May 2018, 13 male sperm whales stranded in Taranaki, North Island. One month later, another male sperm whale stranded at Clifford Bay, South Island. With the permission of iwi (local tribes of Maōri, the indigenous people of New Zealand), we took some small skin samples in order to learn more about the individuals, as well as the species as a whole. We also took these events as an incentive to analyze the existing records of sperm whale strandings in New Zealand.

Genetics results

When we collect skin samples from stranded animals, we can gain information about how individuals are connected to one another, like a family tree. There is a particular type of DNA called mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) that gets passed down from mother to calf. On this mtDNA, we can find specific groups of alleles (certain DNA sequences) called “haplotypes” which we can use as indicators of any connections or differences that sperm whales have with each other. We found 7 haplotypes from the 14 male sperm whales that we assessed. One of these was a brand new haplotype that had not been recorded anywhere else previously in the world. Another one had not been previously found in New Zealand sperm whales.

sperm whales new zealand

Stable isotope results

Skin samples collected from strandings also allow us to find out information about sperm whale feeding habits. While it is very informative to look at the stomach contents of dead animals, with large whales this is not always feasible. Besides, the stomachs of stranded animals are sometimes empty. So to gain information on their diets, we used stable isotope analysis of skin samples. The technique is based on the principle that different isotopes of elements differ in their molecular weights. We measure two elements: stable isotopes of carbon tell us about the feeding habitat, while stable isotopes of nitrogen tell us roughly how high up the food chain a whale has been feeding.

In our case, we found that the whale that stranded in Clifford Bay had very different isotopic values compared to the other whales that stranded a few weeks earlier. This confirmed our suspicion that this single whale did not belong to the group that stranded earlier. Instead, it was likely a solitary animal which is very common for adult male sperm whales. By comparing the fluke of the male who stranded at Clifford Bay to photos of males taken at Kaikoura, we could confirm the stranded male was a regular visitor to Kaikoura. His name was Kaha and he was quite famous among tour operators and researchers.

By measuring the different element isotopes in the whales’ skin, we can understand their ecology — Credit: Marta Guerra/New Zealand Whale and Dolphin Trust.

Demographic analyses

When we analyzed all available stranding records, we found that sperm whales stranded all around the New Zealand coast. Yet, females did not often strand below 42 degrees latitude. It matches the global distribution of female sperm whales; they tend to stay in warmer waters with their calves. As stranding locations relate to where sperm whales likely live, this is really important information. We know that male sperm whales spend a lot of time feeding in the Kaikōura Canyon. Yet, we previously did not know much about female sperm whales in New Zealand.

We also found that mass strandings occurred mainly on the North Island and on Chatham Island. Conversely, single strandings occurred along the entire coastline of New Zealand. Single strandings also seemed to be more common in summer, which is a general peak time for strandings of whales and dolphins in New Zealand.

What’s next for New Zealand sperm whales?

There are still more data we have not yet analyzed. For example, we could extract DNA from cultural artifacts such as scrimshaw or pendants made of tooth and bone, to look at how genetic connectivity has changed over time. While our results have answered some questions regarding the spatial and demographic trends of New Zealand sperm whale strandings, we are still just scratching the surface of everything there is to know about these magnificent animals!

Sources

Palmer E, Alexander A, Liggins L, Guerra M, Bury SJ, Hendriks H, Stockin KA, Peters KJ  (2022). A piece of the puzzle: analyses of recent strandings and historical records reveal new genetic and ecological insights on New Zealand sperm whales. Marine Ecology Progress Series 690: 201-217. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps14051

Did you like this post about sperm whales in new Zealand? Make sure to check out our other sperm whales posts:

PhD Candidate | Cetacean Ecology Research Group | Website

Hi, I'm Emily and I am currently doing my PhD in Zoology at Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand. My thesis is titled "The life history of New Zealand common dolphins (Delphinus delphis)" and focuses on the growth and reproduction of the species. I have been with the Cetacean Ecology Research Group for over 3 years now and am involved with stranding responses and necropsies of cetaceans. My research interests are marine mammalogy, ecology and conservation.

Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Canterbury | Website

Katharina J. Peters is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Canterbury, New Zeland, and a research associate at Massey University, New Zealand and the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Her research interests lie at the interface of animal behavior, population ecology and evolutionary biology and how to apply this information to better manage the conservation of wild populations and their associated environments. Her current projects focus on population dynamics of Weddell seals in the Ross Sea, Antarctica, reproductive success on bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Australia, and on the foraging ecology and distribution of odontocetes in New Zealand waters.

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