It’s going to be an exciting 2014 for Vancouver Aquarium research associate Dr. Valeria Vergara. She is preparing to spend mid-July to mid-August at the Arctic Watch wilderness lodge in Nunavut to observe beluga mothers and calves, and record the calls they make to communicate with each other.

Belugas swim into the shallows of Cunningham Inlet (Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge in the background). Photo: Gretchen Freund

Belugas swim into the shallows of Cunningham Inlet (Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge in the background). Photo: Gretchen Freund

This research is being conducted with the help of the Arctic Watch Beluga Foundation, a non-profit organization that will provide transportation and accommodation to Dr. Vergara.

This is the most recent development in her long term research on belugas – called “sea canaries” by early whalers for the different sounds they make (whistles and clicks). For the month that beluga mothers and their calves come into the shallows of Cunningham Inlet to nurse, moult and socialize, Dr. Vergara will research beluga acoustic communication and find out how boat noise affects their ability to call to each other. She says that climate change is melting ice in the Arctic earlier and quicker than ever before, opening new passages and making it easier for boats to make their way through areas that have been pristine and quiet – until now.

Dr. Vergara deploys a hydrophone to record belugas in the St. Lawrence River. She will do the same in Cunningham Inlet this summer. Photo: Lisa Walker

Dr. Vergara deploys a hydrophone to record belugas in the St. Lawrence River. She will do the same in Cunningham Inlet this summer. Photo: Lisa Walker

Dr. Vergara’s research has its roots at the Aquarium. From 2002 to 2009, she recorded and analyzed the calls of the adult belugas, as well as the vocal development of Tuvaq, born at the Aquarium in 2002. This research explored the different vocalizations they make depending on the situation and the significance of “contact calls, “ which is how mothers and calves keep track of each other. In addition, she conducted research in Hudson Bay and the St. Lawrence River.

Dr. Vergara’s work is a good example of how research done in an aquarium influences research conducted in the wild. Although she says it’s not enough to do research solely in an aquarium environment, she also acknowledges that some aspects of behavioural research in the wild can be difficult, if not impossible, to do. She says that in her case, research at the Aquarium “can thus guide our investigation of vocal usage in wild belugas by providing details that can help us uncover important questions and make informed predictions about what we may observe in the wild.”

Researchers at the Vancouver Aquarium, which also include sea lion and dolphin researchers, work closely with the animal care staff to monitor the animals’ welfare. In some cases, the animal care teams also work on new behaviours to aid in the research. For example, when Dr. Vergara was researching vocal flexibility in belugas, Qila was taught to listen to a recording of a beluga vocalization and then mimic it. This behaviour was taught in many small steps over a period of months.

Dr. Vergara listens to beluga recordings on a research boat. Photo: Lisa Walker

Dr. Vergara listens to beluga recordings on a research boat. Photo: Lisa Walker

To say that Dr. Vergara is excited to begin her research in Cunningham Inlet is an understatement. With great enthusiasm, she says this opportunity is “a dream come true” that gives validity to research done in an aquarium setting.

Now, it’s time to put her hypotheses to the test in the wild. Stay tuned for an update of her findings later this year.

Learn more about Dr. Vergara’s research.

 

Click below to hear young male belugas vocalizing in the St. Lawrence River.

 

This clip is an example of how boat noise masks beluga vocalizations (they can be heard faintly in the background).

 

Written by Karen Horak, writer-editor, content and digital experience at the Vancouver Aquarium.

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