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A Closer Look at Argentinean Patagonia

Date: 2004-01-30

WildlifeSAIL NEWS LETTER 27 January, 2004

1. 5 NEW log reports (No. 60 - 64)
2. NEW Underwater Video of Dolphins swimming with catamaran
3. NEW Educational Module: CLASSROOM work covering Natural Resources and
Biodiversity on Patagonian Atlantic Coast
4. NEW Interview with WCS Scientist Claudio Campagna: "Seagulls Change
Whale Migratory and Reproductive Behavior - What Is the Human Factor?" -by
Kate Hagerman and JF Thye


1. See for log reports


2. Visit Video Gallery. We were able to get this
underwater footage when a large group of hyperactive dolphin visited us off
the south Brazilian coast.


3. Education (click on Education in the menu
bar): WildlifeSAIL visits Argentinean Patagonia. This WCS sponsored
Educational Program discusses Natural resources and Biodiversity on the
Patagonian Coast. Included are interactive maps with theoretical
approaches, activities and proposals for CLASSROOM work that focus on the
wild Patagonia habitat.


4. Seagulls Change Whale Migratory and Reproductive Behavior - What Is the
Human Factor?

We know uncontained human garbage in open air disposal sites has
unaesthetic consequences. But can you imagine the demise of whales due to
the inability of humans to cover their trash? That is exactly what we
learned while surveying the marine population at Playa Colombo, Peninsula
Valdez, Argentina with WCS scientist Claudio Campagna.

We encountered 20 Southern Right Wales. I was awe struck as mothers and
calves curiously approached us. Their movements were graceful and
affectionate. The calves followed the mothers closely, occasionally rolling
their silky torsos, splashing a flipper playfully. The Southern Right Whale
averages 56 feet in length and weighs 2,000 pounds. The body is black with
white ventral patches and a large rotund shape, and the broad back lacks a
dorsal fin. Callosities cover the head occurring in approximately the same
places that facial hair grows on human males. Off Argentina, southern
Rights have been observed "sailing," a behavior in which they raise their
tail flipper in the air at a 90 Degree angle to the wind and "sail"
downwind, often returning to their starting point to repeat the behavior.*

The Rights came close to the boat. We filmed and listened to their
brilliant sounds. I was astonished to see gaping holes along their backs. I
asked Claudio Campagna what caused them. In a bewildered tone he said, "The
seagulls are eating the whales alive" while pointing to a sea gull pecking
the skin off of a whale's back. "They eat their blubber once they tear
through the skin."

The behavior is recent, since the human population boom in the area. 15 to
20 years ago the gulls were just eating the skin that naturally peeled off
of the whales into the water. Only in the last 10 years have they attacked
the whales directly. Claudio elaborates, "This is cultural evolution, not
natural selection.** The seagulls look at each other and learn the behavior
by observation. The whales are in agony. When the whales are disturbed
their behavior changes. Cows (female whales) stop nursing their calves, who
are dependent on their mother's milk, to escape the gulls. They dive
underwater and arch their backs. They swim away from places where seagulls
attack them, which may have an effect on the places they select for
breading. Some whales have 15-20 holes that are a few centimeters deep.
Gulls should be considered predators. It has to be stopped."

"How are humans linked to the seagulls eating the whales alive?" I asked.
"The increase in the gull population is due to the humans making food
available to them in open garbage dumps. There are three large garbage
dumps in the area: Puerto Madryn, Rawson, and Puerto Piramides. In the
Puerto Madryn garbage dump the gulls dine on fish remains from the local
processing plants. The only solution is to close the garbage dumps (meaning
cover them) and remove the gulls that know the behavior. In turn, we humans
have turned seagulls into whale predators."

"What are the long term effects?" He replies, "The gulls could transmit
diseases, particularly if they are the same gulls eating at the garbage
dumps. The pain the gulls inflict on whales and the whales' effort to
escape the gulls is causing change in their natural movement, altering
migration and nursing behaviors. We also have to take into account that
the movements required to escape the gulls are energetically costly to the
whales; the whales increase their speed of travel and so their migration
patterns change. It is evident now that garbage dumps are a health issue
for people as well as the most important tourist industry in this area, the

I ask what is the status on covering the garbage dumps. He says bleakly,
"Everyone knows about the problem but at this time nothing is being done.
It is too costly for the government. We would have to get an international
loan to the Provence Chubut (the region)."

* Whale facts from: A Guide to Marine Mammals of the World. National
Audubon Society.

** ("Natural selection" is a method in which animals adopt behavior
over very long periods of time, over many generations. The behavior is
naturally imposed upon a population of animals because it leads to a higher
survival and reproductive life for that animal population. Animals who
don't innately produce the behavior die and are not selected by nature to
continue breeding successfully. In other words, mother nature selects
which behavior is a good balance for the environment. In "cultural
evolution" animals learn to behave in a certain way by watching each
other. Cultural evolution can happen in a relatively short period of time
and is not dictated by a natural environmentally healthy course of
selection over long periods of time. Cultural evolution can be devastating
in the long term for an animal population, whereas natural selection is a
natural evolution that leads to survival.)

- With respect, Kate Hagerman and JF Thye
P.S. Many thanks to Claudio Campagna for welcoming the WildlifeSAIL Team to
document his research on Peninsula Valdez and coastal Argentine Patagonia.


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