Story at a glance
- A new study published Thursday states scientists have seen fin whales in massive numbers feeding near their ancestral hunting grounds of Elephant Island in the Antarctic.
- Fin whales, a type of baleen whale that feeds on plankton, were hunted to near extinction during the 19th century.
- Scientists hope that with a recovering fin whale population comes an improved marine ecosystem.
The once endangered fin whale is making a comeback.
The whales, which were almost hunted to extinction in the 19th century, were seen in large numbers in their ancestral hunting grounds close to Elephant Island in the Antarctic, according to research published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.
A team of scientists led by the University of Hamburg’s Helena Herr spotted over 100 groups of southern fin whales during two expeditions in 2018 and 2019, the research states.
“I’d never seen so many whales in one place before and was absolutely fascinated watching these massive groups feed,” said one of the study’s lead authors, Bettina Meyer, a biologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research and at the University of Oldenburg, as well as the Helmholtz Institute for Functional Marine Biodiversity.
Those groups were usually made up of one to four fin whales, but some were unusually large and at least eight groups were made up of 150 individual fin whales, some of the largest groupings of baleen whales ever recorded, taking part in feeding frenzies, scooping water into their massive mouths and filtering out krill with their long bristly teeth.
Prior to this, scientists have only ever seen groups of up to 13 fin whales feeding together.
Herr and her colleagues documented the whale sightings via aerial photos from helicopters and — in another first for science — caught some of the communal feeding on video with the help of a camera crew from the BBC.
Fin whales, along with humpback and blue whales, were almost hunted to extinction with researchers estimating that by the time whaling was banned in the 1970s over 700,000 fin whales had been killed.
Researchers believe that the data suggests the Antarctic fin whale population is recovering and has the potential to improve their area’s marine ecosystem through eating and excreting krill along with other types of plankton.
Whale waste is high in nutrients, particularly nitrogen, which when it reaches the surface it feeds phytoplankton which in turn feeds many fish and other marine life, according to one study.
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