Today we visited Bayworld Marine Centre in Port Elizabeth to learn about oceanic conservation.
We attended lectures given by researchers. Dr Stephanie Plon spoke about whale species and their adaptations for marine life. She discussed the use of blubber for metabolism and counter-current heat exchange within the flippers and dorsal fin, which primarily help regulate the optimal temperatures for a whale’s reproductive organs. Blood low is also adjusted to supply the brain and heart in cases of low oxygen. She discussed the annual Sardine Run, which is a mass migration of sardines from the western to eastern coast of South Africa from May to July. This migration has decreased over the last decade with a declining population. They hypothesize that the decreased numbers are due to increasing water temperatures and are conducting research to help explain this change. She also discussed the necropsy procedures used for animals that are found on shore. These procedures we used later in the day.
Next the curator of the centre, Dr Greg Kauffman spoke about seal species. He discussed methods used to track individual seals, which included attaching “Argo Floats” to the animals. This device is attached to the head with adhesive and relay data about migration patterns, temperature, depth, and salinity of the water that these animals are moving through. The devices are lost the seal’s annual moult. The Cape Fur Seal is a species found only off the coasts of South Africa and are highly protected due to their declining population size. Historically, these animals had been hunted for fur, organs, and blubber. In 2008 massive storms swept newborn pups off their rearing island in Algoa Bay. Bayworld staff and volunteers worked to treat and rehabilitate the young and reintroduced them to the island.
To finish lectures Dr Michelle Bradshaw spoke about sea birds. The Cape Gannet are found on only 6 islands off the coast of South Africa and Namibia. One island, called Bird Island, is home to over 65,000 mating pairs. The colonies have their own “runways” from which these impressive fliers take off to search for food. African Penguins are also only found off South Africa and Namibia. They are an endangered species with a 60% decline in population over the last 10 years. Many factors have affected these birds such as commercial fishing, oil spills, egg and guano harvesting, predation, and disease. Penguins have distinct and unique feather spotted patterns on their chest that are unchanged through moulting. These patterns have served as a type of fingerprinting that has allowed researchers to identify and study individual animals. Computer systems have been developed to map these patterns to better monitory and study these animals.
After lectures we were taken on a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility and saw the vast collection of sea mammal skeletons and tissues that have been collected, analysed, and preserved at the centre.
In the afternoon we helped with the dissection of a Rough Toothed Dolphin and a Subarctic Fur Seal that were found on a nearby beach. We examined their anatomy and compared it to domestic species to which we are accustomed. Most striking was the difference in breathing apparatus morphology that is necessary for dolphins to use their blowholes on the dorsal part of their heads. Samples were collected from muscle, blubber, liver, spleen, kidney, intestine, stomach, heart, lungs, trachea, oesophagus, lymph nodes, and reproductive organs to be submitted for further pathologic evaluation. Cystic parasites were found in the blubber of the dolphin and collected for evaluation. Stomach contents which contained squid beak and eye lenses were also collected for species identification. Through this they will be able to determine the diet of these animals.
In the words of Dr Kauffman, “Marine mammals face a greater risk of extinction than those terrestrial animals.” Today was an eye opening insight to the seriousness and challenges that are faced in marine research and conservation efforts.
Written by Miranda Uriell, VM4, Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine