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Genetic Sampling
Genetic Sampling

An important part of sperm whale research is identifying individuals. Comparing genetic profiles is an excellent way to not only identify individuals, but also to understand family relationships between the whales.

The first step was locating sperm whales. Longline fishermen participating in the study alerted the researchers when they spotted sperm whales in their areas. The Principal Investigator (PI), using a chartered high speed vessel, motored to the site to observe, photograph and collect genetic tissue from the sperm whales.

Crossbow used for collecting genetic samples.

The researchers collected skin samples for their genetic tests. Sperm whales commonly slough off skin when they dive. A dip net can scoop skin samples right off the water. But if there is no sloughed skin, researchers can get a small sample (smaller than a pencil eraser) using a biopsy dart shot from a crossbow that grazes the surface of the whale. Some researchers have even used a small piece of stiff scrubby sponge tied onto the end of a pole and scrubbed skin onto the sponge.

The Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC), which has a library of 750 sperm whale samples from around the world, analyzed the newly collected skin samples. Further study and comparisons will answer:

  1. To which stock do these individuals belong?
  2. How many individuals are involved?
  3. What is the relatedness of individuals within groups following particular vessels, and what is the relatedness among groups in the area? And finally,
  4. What is the gender of the depredating animals?
Dart striking sperm whale to collect a genetic sample.
The tissue sample is removed from the dart tip. Tissue sample once removed from tip.

All NMFS Scientific Research Permits required under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act for collecting genetic tissue samples and photographs have been issued to NMFS, SWFSC and J. Straley, UAS.


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