26 February 2009

The depressing life of elephants in captivity

A recent study on elephants in zoos found out something that many of us probably already suspected... these captive animals are at risk of depression and unhappy if kept alone or in small groups.

The important point made by the author Paul Rees is that life in small groups is unnatural for herd animals.

In their ‘normal’ life elephants are used to having many contacts with members of their own species, and this is crucial for the animals to develop normal behaviour patterns and friendships.

If they are forced to stay with just a few other individuals they cannot learn important socials skills such as finding a mate or greeting rituals, and many of them begin showing abnormal behaviour that suggests depression.

This study represents another reason to re-consider the ethical implications of keeping animals in captivity for human amusement.

Silvia Bonizzoni

Photo from: http://animalphotos.info

For more information:
Rees P.A. 2009. The sizes of elephant groups in zoos: implications for elephant welfare. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 12 (1):44-60. (Abstract only)


24 February 2009

Brave new ocean

If you don't bother to read scientific papers about the present condition of our oceans, you can simply watch the impressive lecture given by Jeremy Jackson at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles).

"Brave new ocean"


Jeremy Jackson is a marine ecologist based at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. In 2003, Jackson and Daniel Pauly co-founded ‘The Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project’ to help promote a wider understanding and use of the term in discussions of general conservation. Shifting Baselines is a sort of partnership between ocean conservation and Hollywood to help bring attention to the severity of ocean decline, to point out that the changes people saw in their 20th-century lifetimes were just small snapshots in a larger picture of environmental decline that has been accelerating for 200 years.

For more information:

"Every ecosystem I studied is unrecognizably different from when I started. I have a son who is 30, and I used to take him snorkelling on the reefs in Jamaica to show him all the beautiful corals there. I have a daughter who is 17... I can't show her anything but heaps of seaweed."
-- Jeremy Jackson

21 February 2009

Marine photos and videos from NOAA’s library

NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has launched the ‘National Marine Sanctuaries Media Library’, a new online multimedia library with public access.

The online library is a comprehensive database containing a collection of thousands high-quality ocean-related photos and videos taken by NOAA scientists, educators, divers and archaeologists.

Thank to an easy search system it is possible to find materials on 13 themes: birds, culture/people, fish, invertebrates, marine mammals, marine reptiles, maritime heritage, media roll, plants, scenic, science/research, ships/vessel/facilities, treats/pressures.

Have a look!

Silvia Bonizzoni

For more information:

20 February 2009

The troubled waters of the Amvrakikos Gulf

On February 17th, Tethys researcher Joan Gonzalvo attended a meeting at the city hall of Vonitsa, Greece, organized by the Management Body of the Amvrakikos Wetlands.

This body was established after the creation of the Amvrakikos Gulf National Park on March 21st, 2008. The meeting was attended by local authorities, a research team from the University of Patras, the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research (HCMR), the Development Agency for South Epirus and Amvrakikos (ETANAM), and local fishermen representatives.

The local fishermen proposed Joan’s participation in the event as an independent observer. A series of presentations by the participants reviewed the dramatic problems faced by the Gulf, namely increasing eutrophication and pollution. Especially alarming was the presentation by Prof. Kostas Koutsikopoulos (University of Patras) who studied the oxygen concentration on the sea floor and deep waters of the Gulf. His results show that anoxic conditions are found in waters deeper than 23 m, while twenty years ago such conditions were observed in waters 40 m deep and below. According to professor Koutsikopoulos, today approximately 70% of the Gulf is, in his own words, a dead zone.

Local fishermen did not seem surprised at all about the evidence shown. They have been claiming that the situation of the Amvrakikos Gulf is critical for several years as indicates by steadily decreasing fish captures.

Participants in the meeting acknowledged the uniqueness of the Gulf and its increasing vulnerability to human impact. The authorities promised to react and try to address the problem.

The good news are that the University of Patras, HCMR and ETANAM have manifested their interest in collaborating with Tethys. Such synergy would be important to take advantage of the intensive work done by Tethys since 2002 to document the abundance, movements and trends of bottlenose dolphins that reside year-round in the troubled waters of the Amvrakikos Gulf .

Joan Gonzalvo

For more information:

Bearzi G., Agazzi S., Bonizzoni S., Costa M., Azzellino A. 2008. Dolphins in a bottle: abundance, residency patterns and conservation of bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus in the semi-closed eutrophic Amvrakikos Gulf, Greece. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 18(2):130-146.

17 February 2009

Culling whales will not help fisheries

A new paper published on Science, has examined the scientific evidence for the assertion that ‘commercial fisheries are negatively impacted by whales in tropical breeding areas’ and that ‘reducing the number of baleen whales in the oceans would improve fisheries because whales eat fish that are caught for human consumption’.

The study, based on ecosystem models, examines the potential increase in the biomass of commercially important fish stocks that would result from a reduction in whale abundance in the Northwest African and Caribbean ecosystems.

Researchers have demonstrated that even a complete eradication of whale populations in tropical waters would not lead to any considerable increase in fish populations. “Our models unequivocally show that removing whales would not significantly increase the amount of commercially valuable fish,” said Leah Gerber, one of the authors, “Instead, we found that fishing is having a far greater bearing on the health of the fish stocks in the region...”

Daniel Pauly, a well-known fishery scientist and co-author of this paper, added “The assertion that fish supply is in peril is legitimate, but the problem is resolved with better management, not whaling”.


Gerber L.R., Morissette L., Kaschner K., Pauly D. 2009. Should whales be culled to increase fishery yield? Science 323: 880-881.

For more information:

15 February 2009

Narwhals migration filmed

For the first time, spectacular aerial footage captured by the BBC shows elusive narwhal during their annual migration north from the west coast of Greenland to their summer feeding grounds in the fjords and bays beyond Lancaster Sound (Canada).

The cetaceans have been filmed from a helicopter. They were swimming in groups of 20 or 30, in perfect unison as they surface for air.


The BBC video

For more information:

14 February 2009

Mothers' jobs

Two papers on cetacean mothers have been recently published.

One investigated the role of menopause and reproductive senescence in a long-lived social mammal such as killer whales. The study reports that older mothers appear to be better mothers, producing calves with higher survival rates, than younger less-experienced moms.

"Older females may be more successful in raising young because of maternal experience, or they may allocate more effort to their offspring relative to younger females", researchers said.

This result is consistent with similar studies of other mammals; the presence of grandmothers may positively influence survival of juveniles at a critical life stage. The study also confirmed that menopause and long post-reproductive lifespans are not prerogatives of humans.

The other study focused on the whale mothers who teach their babies where to eat. Thanks to genetic and chemical analyses, researchers show that the right whale teach to their calves the location of feeding grounds during a long migration through the South Atlantic Ocean.

Researchers are now linking this result to the ocean present situation and they are raising concern about whales ability to find new places to feed if climate change is disrupting their traditional feeding areas.


Southern Right whale and calf, by Genevieve Johnson (earthOcean)

For more information:
Ward E.J., Parsons K., Holmes E.E., Balcomb K.C., Ford J.K.B. 2009. The role of menopause and reproductive senescence in a long-lived social mammal. Frontiers in Zoology 6: 4. doi:10.1186/1742-9994-6-4

‘Mother whales teach babies where to eat: can Southern right whales adapt if food becomes scarce?’

08 February 2009

Tilen Genov contributes to Tethys research in the Gulf of Corinth

A 'special' researcher is going to join the Ionian Dolphin Project team next spring: Tilen Genov, President of Morigenos.

When he was about 8, Tilen had been the first adopter of a bottlenose dolphin in the context of a campaign launched to support research by Tethys around Losinj, Croatia. Since then he has been a frequent guest at the Losinj field station, initially with Tethys and then with BlueWorld.

Having learned much through contact with researchers and direct observation, Tilen eventally created his own organization in Slovenia and started doing dolphin research with his team.

Tilen just published a paper summarizing his findings on bottlenose dolphins along the Slovenian and adjacent coasts.

Tilen will work with Tethys researchers in the context of "Delphi's Dolphins", the new dolphin research and conservation project in the Gulf of Corinth, Greece.

Giovanni Bearzi

Morigenos, together with Tethys and various other cetacean research and conservation NGOs, is member of the Cetacean Alliance.

06 February 2009

Maiacetus inuus: il 'nuovo' antenato dei cetacei

Confermata l’ipotesi che i più antichi antenati dei cetacei attuali avessero origini terrestri.

In Pakistan sono stati rinvenuti i resti di un nuovo Protocetide, il Maiacetus inuus, un animale vissuto 49-37 milioni di anni fa che conduceva una vita semiacquatica. Gli scheletri appartengono a una femmina lunga 2,6 metri con il suo feto e a un altro esemplare maschio leggermente più lungo.

Di particolare interesse è la posizione del feto nel corpo della madre. Il piccolo, quasi pronto per nascere, è in posizione cefalica e ciò differisce dagli attuali cetacei che invece si presentano ‘di coda’. Secondo i ricercatori questo suggerisce che il M. inuus, non essendo ancora completamente adattato alla vita acquatica, fosse costretto a partorire a terra. Questa caratteristica è coerente con la morfologia scheletrica, che consentiva all'animale di sostenere il suo peso sulla terra. Precedenti teorie sull’appartenenza dei Protocetidi al mondo anfibio vengono quindi scalzate dalla recente scoperta.

Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, Presidente onorario di Tethys, intervistato dal Corriere della Sera, ha commentato così la notizia: “Conosciamo così poco sulla storia evolutiva dei cetacei che la scoperta di un fossile di cetaceo con il feto è straordinaria, unica. La nascita è un momento drammatico nella vita dei cetacei attuali, perché partoriscono nell’acqua un piccolo che respira aria. E’ stato un giro di boa importante nella loro evoluzione. Questa scoperta è come una finestra aperta su uno stadio intermedio delle modalità di riproduzione. E’ come il fotogramma di un film”.

Silvia Bonizzoni

Immagine: Scheletro di una femmina adulta di Maiacetus inuus (ossa rosa) e del suo feto (ossa azzurre)

Gingerich P.D., ul-Haq M., von Koenigswald W., Sanders W.J., Smith B.H., Zalmout I.S. 2009. New Protocetid whale from the Middle Eocene of Pakistan: birth on land, precocial development, and sexual dimorphism. PLoS ONE 4(2): e4366.

ABSTRACT: Protocetidae are middle Eocene (49-37 Ma) archaeocete predators ancestral to later whales. They are found in marine sedimentary rocks, but retain four legs and were not yet fully aquatic. Protocetids have been interpreted as amphibious, feeding in the sea but returning to land to rest. Two adult skeletons of a new 2.6 meter long protocetid, Maiacetus inuus, are described from the early middle Eocene Habib Rahi Formation of Pakistan. M. inuus differs from contemporary archaic whales in having a fused mandibular symphysis, distinctive astragalus bones in the ankle, and a less hind-limb dominated postcranial skeleton. One adult skeleton is female and bears the skull and partial skeleton of a single large near-term fetus. The fetal skeleton is positioned for head-first delivery, which typifies land mammals but not extant whales, evidence that birth took place on land. The fetal skeleton has permanent first molars well mineralized, which indicates precocial development at birth. Precocial development, with attendant size and mobility, were as critical for survival of a neonate at the land-sea interface in the Eocene as they are today. The second adult skeleton is the most complete known for a protocetid. The vertebral column, preserved in articulation, has 7 cervicals, 13 thoracics, 6 lumbars, 4 sacrals, and 21 caudals. All four limbs are preserved with hands and feet. This adult is 12% larger in linear dimensions than the female skeleton, on average, has canine teeth that are 20% larger, and is interpreted as male. Moderate sexual dimorphism indicates limited male-male competition during breeding, which in turn suggests little aggregation of food or shelter in the environment inhabited by protocetids. Discovery of a near-term fetus positioned for head-first delivery provides important evidence that early protocetid whales gave birth on land. This is consistent with skeletal morphology enabling Maiacetus to support its weight on land and corroborates previous ideas that protocetids were amphibious. Specimens this complete are virtual ‘Rosetta stones’ providing insight into functional capabilities and life history of extinct animals that cannot be gained any other way.

Per maggiori informazioni:

04 February 2009

The so-called ‘scientific whaling’

In the recent paper ‘Reconsidering the science of scientific whaling’ Peter Corkeron, a renowned cetologist, reviewed the data obtained in the last years by Japanese scientific whaling research.

From a scientific standpoint, Corkeron analyzed every single aspects of this lethal research, and provided evidence on why this technique is useless, simplistic, unsophisticated and problematic.



Corkeron P.J. 2009. Reconsidering the science of scientific whaling. Marine Ecology Progress Series 375: 305-309.

ABSTRACT: Scientific whaling is one of the most publicly contentious applications of marine ecological research today. An evaluation of the second phase of Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research (ICR) program in the western North Pacific (JARPN II) is soon to be conducted under the auspices of the Scientific Committee (SC) of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Previous IWC SC reviews identified serious problems with the programs, yet reached inconsequential conclusions, and the JARPN II review is the first under a new format. The basic design of this study - forestomach sampling coupled with acoustic and trawl surveys for prey - is an unsophisticated approach to investigating the foraging ecology of Balaenoptera spp. Published results of the JARPN II feasibility study demonstrate problems with the execution of field work. Data analyses were simplistic. Non-lethal studies into the foraging ecology of Balaenoptera spp., using far fewer resources, have produced more definitive information. The recent changes in the IWC SC review process should result in unambiguous advice on how to improve the design of JARPN II. If the review recommends improvements that are not acted upon by the program's proponents, the IWC may need to decide whether the JARPN II program can be considered to be scientific research under Article VIII of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.

02 February 2009

The proper way to eat a cuttlefish

A new study on dolphins registered elaborate and complex feeding behaviour to turn a cuttlefish into a soft, chewy snack.

In the Upper Spencer Gulf in South Australia, researchers observed and recorded a wild female Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus) repeatedly catching, killing and preparing cuttlefish for consumption using a specific and ordered sequence of behaviours.

Cuttlefish were herded to a sand substrate, pinned to the seafloor, killed by downward thrust, raised mid-water and beaten by the dolphin with its snout until the ink was released and drained. The deceased cuttlefish was then returned to the seafloor, inverted and forced along the sand substrate in order to strip the thin dorsal layer of skin off the mantle, thus releasing the buoyant calcareous cuttlebone.

As the researchers said ‘this behaviour is a dramatic example of how dolphins, with their relatively unspecialised morphology, can utilise behavioural flexibility to tackle prey items that require substantial handling before consumption...’

Silvia Bonizzoni


Stages of prey handling of giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama) by Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin

For more information:
Finn J., Tregenza T., Norman M. 2009. Preparing the perfect cuttlefish meal: complex prey handling by dolphins. PLoS ONE 4(1):e4217.