New research sheds light on the endangered Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s Whale

Written by: Emma Odenweller

FIU’s Institute of Water and Environment researchers are part of a team that has been investigating the behavior and ecology of one of the most endangered whale species on the planet: Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whale (pronounced broo-dus).

bryde's whale
Photo courtesy NOAA

The only baleen whale to reside year round in the Gulf of Mexico, they constitute a genetically distinct lineage compared to other Bryde’s whale populations worldwide. With only an estimated 33 individuals, this small population is extremely vulnerable to human impacts like vessel strikes, energy exploration and development, oil spills, fishing gear entanglement and ocean noise.

According to NOAA, an estimated 48 percent of their habitat was exposed to surface oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in April 2010. Seventeen percent of the population suffered mortality, 22 percent of females experienced reproductive failure and an additional 18 percent suffered adverse health effects.

In collaboration with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), South-East Fisheries Science Center and Scripps Oceanographic Institution (University of California San Diego), the research focuses on how these whales interact with their habitat and prey. According to Dr. Jeremy Kiszka, assistant professor in the FIU Department of Biological Sciences and co-principal investigator of the study, this research is critical to improving understanding of the ecology and behavior of these unique animals.

bryde's whale
Photo courtesy NOAA

“The goal of the study is to generate new information that would lead to changes in conservation and management,” Dr. Kiszka said. 

Through a grant funded by NOAA’s RESTORE Science Program, the team is using a combination of data from scientific echosounders and behavioral tags to study the foraging activities of Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whales and to map the distribution of their prey. PhD student, Vincent Quiquempois, is conducting stable isotope analyses on samples collected from the whales and their potential prey during net tows from ship-based research surveys. The research will aid in determining the trophic requirements of the whale as well as understanding the importance of this species for the Gulf of Mexico marine ecosystem.

Very little is known about the habitat, food requirements and general life history of the Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whale. According to NOAA, these whales can grow up to 55 feet in length and commonly reside in an area of the northwestern Gulf of Mexico near the De Soto Canyon. The whales are thought to spend a large amount of time near the surface of the water, and can dive to depths of around 400 feet to feed on dense patches of prey. 

FIU researchers and their partners hope that the new information on the whale’s ecology can help to enact changes in how the whales are managed and lead to the reduction of potential vessel collisions and other human impacts.