A whale's life, inscribed in baleen

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Science  11 Dec 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6266, pp. 1300-1301
DOI: 10.1126/science.350.6266.1300

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In 2004, a collision with a ship cut short the life of an endangered North Atlantic right whale named Stumpy. Many lamented her death, but Stumpy's demise could ultimately help other whales. Researchers are using her tough, hairlike baleen to develop a new method of reconstructing a whale's life story—much as scientists use growth rings to reveal a tree's past. The nascent technique could make it easier to study, and perhaps protect, whales. Deriving whale biographies from baleen is just one concept to be discussed next week at the 21st Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in San Francisco, California. Some 3000 researchers will share insights into some of the world's most charismatic creatures, including first-time audio recordings of rare species and updates on struggling populations. They'll also discuss novel ways of assessing the health and physiology of free-swimming mammals that can be hard to study in the wild. That's where the work involving Stumpy—and a second right whale named Staccato—will come in. Over the past decade or so, wildlife researchers have been figuring out how to pry life history information out of tissues based on keratin, the fibrous protein found in nails, hair, feathers, horns, claws, hooves, and skin. Now, they're focusing on the keratin in baleen.

  • * Rebecca Kessler is a journalist in Providence.

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