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Bowhead Whale Spotted 1,000 Miles from Home is Same Individual Seen in 2012

Apr 24, 2014 11:12 AM EDT
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A bowhead whale spotted very far from home in Cape Cod Bay, Mass., earlier this month is the same individual that caused a stir in 2012, according to scientists from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (CCS).

Typically found in Arctic waters, this bowhead whale was spotted feeding amid a pod of right whales in Cape Cod Bay on April 9 and April 19. After analyzing images taken of the whale this year and comparing them to images of a wayward bowhead whale seen two years ago, scientists concluded it was the same individual based on scars on the whale's head.

CSS scientists spotted the same bowhead whale swimming along Outer Beach in Orleans, Mass., in March 2012, and in the Bay of Fundy in August later that year when it was seen engaged with right whales in a social activity linked to mating.

The individual bowhead whale measures about 40 feet long, but it is unclear whether the whale is male or female, the researchers said.

Thick-blubbered bowhead whales inhabit the Arctic Ocean and far northern reaches of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and are specifically adapted to life in the polar region. They can use their remarkably hard heads to break open ice sheets preventing them from coming up for air.

The wayward bowhead has been documented feeding among and socializing with right whales, which it is closely related to.

Like the right whale, bowheads are slow-moving filter feeders that subsist largely on zooplankton such as the copepods that are abundant in Cape Cod Bay at this time of year.

But it is unlikely that the bowhead had ever tasted copepods before traveling so far south, according to Charles "Stormy" Mayo, director of the right whale research program at the CCS.

The rare sighting of a bowhead whale so far afield could mean that conditions in its home waters have forced it to look for food elsewhere.

Huge numbers of right whales have been congregating in Cape Cod, Mayo told Nature World News as he stood on a boat surrounded by the rare mammals. Only 500 right whales are thought to be alive today, and as many as 250 have been seen congregating in Cape Cod Bay at one time.

"Two years ago we saw our first bowhead, an animal that should be 1,000 miles from Cape Cod, then last year we saw the first calving of a right whale in Cape Cod waters, and now we have a bowhead again here, this time feeding with right whales," Mayo said. "These observations along with extraordinary number of rare right whales in Cape Cod Bay seem to be pointing to profound changes in the coastal habitat, to which the whales are responding."

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