Marine Conservation, Research, & Observations

Changing Sea Surface Temperature and Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) abundance and its effect on the abundance of the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) and Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Cape May, New Jersey

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Background:

As the fall progresses in Cape May New Jersey the sea surface temperatures in the waters surrounding the southern tip of New Jersey begin to drop steadily. Beginning at around 70 degrees in September and dropping to around 40 degrees in December. Many fish species are year round residents in the area and are not affected by this drop in temperature. However there is one species of fish that cannot sustain itself in the colder waters of winter and must migrate in order to survive and that fish is the Atlantic Menhaden. Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) is a schooling species of fish that is distributed from the Maritime Provinces of Canada to the east coast of Florida. Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) lives in estuaries, coastal embayments, and shelf coast habitats, where is is one of the most abundant species (Lozano 2012). As larval, Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) feed primarily on zooplankton. As they begin to grow, juveniles form gill rakers which allow them to filter feed. Adult Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) filter feed on small particles such as phytoplankton (Lynch 2007). Adult Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) migrate seasonally along the eastern coast of the United States, moving northward in the spring and southward in the fall (Lozano 2012).

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The two main marine mammals that are found in the area around Cape May, New Jersey is the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), and the Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). These two marine mammals feed primarily on Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) while in the waters around Cape May. Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) fall under the category of cetacean. Cetaceans are high trophic level marine predators that have their movement and habitat preferences related to that of their prey. Small cetaceans such as Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) seasonally move inshore or offshore along regionally scaled coastlines (Henderson 2014). Cape May, New Jersey, and the southern portion on New Jersey, is a nursery location for Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) to raise their young. Mother Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) care for their offspring for the first three to four years of their life (Hill 2007). Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) use the shallow water around Cape May, New Jersey as a nursery site to raise their young, and are able to use the Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) as a main food source for their young.

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Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) falls under the category of Baleen Whale, which means it has baleen plates in its mouth instead of teeth. All Baleen Species including the Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) feed by swallowing both water and prey into their mouth and then filtering the prey from the water by pushing it through keratinized baleen plates that hang from the rostrum of the whale (Goldbogen 2013). This allows baleen whales to feed on large quantities of prey at once, and is considered one most energy efficient feeding methods in the animal kingdom (Goldbogen 2013). Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) spend the majority of the summer in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the North Atlantic, and can also be found in the Gulf of Maine, Eastern Canada and Western Greenland. While in the Gulf of St. Lawrence Humpbacks feed on a variety of zooplankton and various species of schooling fish (Ramp 2015). The Gulf of Maine Population of Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) breed in the West Indies during the winter months (Ramp 2015).

Specific Aims:

  1. I will observe the abundance of Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) and its effect on the abundance of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) and Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae).
  2. I will observe the changing sea surface temperatures, and its effect on the abundance of Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus).

Experimental Design:

For this project I have developed a scale to determine the abundance of menhaden during a sighting of either bottlenose dolphin or humpback whale. When arriving upon a sighting the first two pieces of data that are recorded is the species that is being viewed and the geographic coordinates of the sighting. Then after recording the species an estimation is made of the amount of Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), and Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) that is in the sighting. Often times when sighting a group of bottlenose dolphin there will be between 20 and 30 individuals. Once determining the size of the group the water temperature of the area is collected using a sensor on the boat. After all of these factors are determined the next piece of data that is focused on is the menhaden scale. There are two factors that are taken into account when recording the menhaden scale data the first is the abundance of menhaden on the surface. Menhaden when in the presence of a predator will often push towards the surface, and can be easily seen as a dark cloud moving through the water. Based on the size of the cloud and the amount in the area and estimation between one and ten is made. Then I look towards the depthfinder on the boat to determine the amount of menhaden that may be under the surface of the water, this is also an estimation between one and ten.

Expected Results:

Through this research I expect to see a positive correlation between the size of the group of marine mammals present in a sighting and the abundance of atlantic menhaden in the area. I also expect to see a negative correlation between sea surface temperature and abundance of Atlantic Menhaden, and marine mammals during a sighting. I also expect to  see an increase in the size of the groups of Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncates)  as the temperature drops and other species of baitfish begin their migration south. Leaving menhaden as their main source of food in the region.

-Zack Bellapigna

Endicott College, Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center

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Works Cited

Humpback Whale Washes Ashore In Sea Isle City, NJ; 09/16/16

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On September 16th, a Humpback Whale washed ashore on 20th street beach in Sea Isle City NJ. The whale had been spotted earlier in the day off the coast of Strathmere, and eventually made its way down to Sea Isle City where it washed ashore. Crews responded immediately, and moved the whale further up the beach where it sat overnight. The following day, September 17th, a crew from the Marine Mammal Stranding Center arrived to perform a necropsy on the whale. While the whale was entangled in line, Bob Schoelkopf of the stranding center stated, “It’s really been dead to long to determine if being entangled in the line is what killed it”(2).  Through the necropsy, Schoelkopf was able to determine that the whale had been struck by a vessel, and believes that it may have happened after the whale had already died. The whale measured out at around 33 feet, and determined to be a young male(2).

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Onlookers viewing the whale behind caution tape in Sea Isle City.

This was the second whale to wash ashore dead on the beaches of New Jersey this summer, so question is what caused these large creatures untimely death? There are several threats to Humpback’s that exist off the coast of New Jersey. One of the most prominent threats that exists is vessel strikes. While it could not be determined whether or not a vessel strike was the cause of death with this individual, there are several reported strikes of Humpbacks every year across the globe. The New Jersey coast is situated between two of the largest ports on the east coast, Philadelphia, and New York City. To allow for the transportation of goods between these two ports there are several shipping lanes situated relatively close to the shore off the coast of New Jersey. These deep water channels that are not manmade but naturally exist between 5 and 20 miles of the coast allow ships with deep hulls to navigate north and south safely. However these deepwater channels are also the preferred routes of travel when Humpback Whales migrate either north or south, as they allow for deeper dives.

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These images demonstrate how both ships and whales use these lanes to travel.

In 2014 alone the port of New York/New Jersey handled 3,442,286 cargo containers, which was a 5% increase from 2013(1). With so much traffic moving back and forth through these shippings lanes, safe travel for Humpback’s is not possible.  Vessels such as Tugboats, Cargo  Container Vessels, and Oil ships, all pass through these channels and have been known to strike whales. The problem that exists before us is finding a way to protect these Humpback’s on their migration routes, and insure the safety of the species while still maintaining the shipping lanes that are crucial to or economic structure. We could find an alternative route for these vessels to travel upon that would have them keep a safe distance from the Humpback’s, however that will most likely place them in the path of other marine life. The truth of the matter is that we as a nation are going to continue to place whales and other marine life in harms way as we continue our industrial lifestyle, and we need to find a way to correct this.

-Zack Bellapigna, Endicott College,

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center

Works Cited

“About The Port.” Port Of New York and New Jersey. N.p., n.d. Web (1)

Staff Report. “Young Humpback Whale Washes up In Sea Isle City.” Press of Atlantic City. N.p., 17 Sept. 2016. Web. 19 Sept. 2016. (2)

Humpback Whale Recollection – 08/26/2016

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On August 26, 2016 at 1pm, we left the dock at Utsch’s Marina and headed through the Cape May harbor towards the Cold Spring inlet. I was hoping to see many dolphins and whales because it was my last day interning at the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center for the season. We proceeded out of the inlet and I began to search for dolphins, they can sometimes be found around the mouth of the inlet. As we left the inlet, we spotted a pod of dolphins on the left side of the boat towards Wildwood, and proceeded towards them to get a closer look.

Photo credit: CMWWRC database; Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin

Photo credit: CMWWRC database; Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin

As we got closer I began to take photos of the pod, trying to capture photos of their dorsal fins. We look at the dorsal fins for dolphins and whales in order to properly identify them and catalogue them because each dolphin will have a different looking dorsal fin. Dorsal fins are the fins on their backs, some may have notches/indentations; some may also have scars or rake marks. So, after observing the pod and following them for a substantial amount of time we continued on our way to the other side of the inlet towards Cape May. As we traveled to the other side we spotted another pod of dolphins. However, we did not follow them for very long as Captain Matt Remuzzi thought he had spotted a humpback whale. I didn’t know at the time and I became confused why we were leaving the pod of dolphins so early and heading further out. I went inside the wheel house and asked if we were moving on and I was told we were because a whale had been spotted.

I became very excited because I had seen a humpback whale the day before, and was happy I would get to see another one on my last day. As we made our way to the location where the whale was spotted, I could see the Atlantic Star, our sister ship out of Wildwood, also heading out. I kept thinking over in my head what I would get to see when we found the whale. I kept wondering if I would get to see lunge feeding, breaching, lob tailing, or perhaps blow spouts. I became overwhelmed with excitement and curiosity and kept looking to see where the whale was. 

We changed course to the right looking for the blow spout. I continued to look for the whale’s blow spout to see where it was but couldn’t find it. Moments later the naturalist, Kathy McDuell said over the microphone she saw a blow spout and I went into the wheel house to record the data for our sighting. Every whale and dolphin sighting we record many data parameters. Once I had written all this information I grabbed the camera and looked all around to capture as many pictures of the humpback as I could. As I was looking, Kathy said she also saw dolphins in the distance which is normal as whales and dolphins interact and help each other find food. Therefore, I also tried to capture pictures of the dolphin’s dorsal fins while attempting to look for blow spouts or any other kinds of whale behavior.

After a few minutes I spotted the blow spouts of the whale and tried to photograph its dorsal fin. The whale surfaced several times, and then, out of the blue, it breached! I remember I was frantically trying to photograph it as quick and best as I could, I was overwhelmed at the sight of seeing its body leap out of the water and fall back into the ocean. The entire boat began to cheer and scream with excitement and enthusiasm as we had just witness one of the largest animals in the world jump clear out of the water! I could hear passengers on the nearby vessels also cheering with excitement. I, myself was shocked at the image I had just seen, the sight of seeing this enormous animal jump out of the water and making as big of a splash as it did is a memory I will never forget.

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We stayed on the whale for well over an hour and it was time to head back to Utsch’s Marina. As we departed from the whale, we spotted more dolphins on the way back; we had passed several pods of many dolphins that were very active and jumping. For the rest of the day I was very happy and thrilled that I was given another opportunity to photograph and observe one of the most magnificent and majestic gentle giants of the sea. This was truly an extraordinary day for me and everyone else aboard the American Star, and just as I won’t, I’m sure it’s a day none of them will ever forget.

-Evan Woerner, intern at Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center,

Middlesex County College

Social Hierarchy of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus)

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Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) Possible Behavioral Communication Through Tail Slaps

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Cape May Turtles

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Dive In: Exploring The Wrecks of the Jersey Shore

Dive In: Exploring The Wrecks of the Jersey Shore

Before Cape May became the summer hot spot that we all know and love today, Cape May, NJ was settled as a whaling and fishing town during colonial times. Due to this, the waters surrounding Cape May became highly populated with ships and fishing vessels as it remains to this day. This included an abundance of Naval vessels during World War II as Cape May served as the U.S. Navy base before it became a Coast Guard Training Station. Due to several rough storms that have hit the Jersey Shore in the past, many of these vessels have became subjected to stormy water and fell short of returning back to shore. Many of these shipwrecks line the Jersey Shore and have attracted divers from all over the world to dive into these historic sites. One site in particular that can be seen from the shore of Cape May and on the Whale Watching Vessels is that of the U.S.S Atlantus, which sunk in 1926. Although this specific site does not attract many divers, it still provides a great example of the wrecks that surround the South Jersey Shore. It has been estimated that there are between 4000 to 7000 wrecks off the coast of New Jersey, which only broadens your options for a great dive.

Off the shore of Wildwood lies the Wildwood Artificial Reef, which is now home to the wrecks of several Army tanks and five sunken ships. These wrecks have attracted an abundance of biodiversity to the area, making it a great site to dive. Unfortunately, more often than not, the visibility of these waters can be low due to the turbidity and the immense amount of phytoplankton that enrich these waters. However, due to the presence of the former, New Jersey waters are known to have a plentiful array of biodiversity. Phytoplankton is a great indicator of nutrient rich water, which is an attractive habitat to many marine species. The Jersey shore is known to have populations of several northern marine species as well as southern marine species that are swept north by the Gulf Stream. Sightings can range from larger organisms such as sharks and skates, to bottom dwellers such as lobsters and starfish. Although the water might not be as clear as it is in the Caribbean, the variety of marine life is more than enough of a reason to dive in South Jersey. So grab your SCUBA gear and dive into an incredible and historic experience!

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Kim diving Blue Grotto Springs, Florida, May 2015

-Kimberly Corcoran, Gettysburg College, Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center

Sources:

“History Of Cape May, New Jersey| Capemay.Com”. 2016. Capemay.Com. http://www.capemay.com/capemayhistory.html.

“New Jersey Scuba Diving”. 2016. Njscuba.Net. http://njscuba.net/index.php.

“Ocean Color – NASA Science”. 2016. Science.Nasa.Gov. http://science.nasa.gov/earth-science/oceanography/living-ocean/ocean-color/.

Great White Shark Breeding Grounds in New Jersey and Long Island

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Phytoplankton Bloom of Cape May, New Jersey; July 2016

Phytoplankton Bloom of Cape May, New Jersey; July 2016

As the Atlantic Star rocked back and forth the blue-green tinted water glared back up at me. I could see hundreds of Atlantic Menhaden and countless Cownose Rays swimming several feet beneath the surface. No, I was not in the Bahamas or the Caribbean or even remotely close for that matter. This was the coast of Cape May, New Jersey. For those of you familiar with the coastal waters of New Jersey, they are often far from the tropical green that it was in early July. New Jersey beachgoers are all too familiar with murky grey waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, which sharply contrasted the tropical colors I was seeing. The normal murky water of the North Atlantic is not because it is “dirty,” but actually because it is teaming with life. Our turbid water is so rich with nutrients and plankton that you do not get the same visibility as you would in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean. These clear tropical waters are in fact barren of the nutrients that are found in the turbid waters of our coast. This leads to the question; why were the turbid waters of New Jersey suddenly looking like they were from the tropics? There were many factors involved, but primarily two culprits: a phytoplankton bloom and a drought.

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Images comparing the beaches of Atlantic City during the bloom and Cape May before the bloom

Phytoplankton, microscopic plant life found throughout the ocean, are at the bottom of the oceanic food web. Unable to swim against the current, their movements are primarily based upon the ocean currents and wind. So how did these little critters contribute to the coloring of the water? Phytoplankton, like all plants, have chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is a green pigment that plants have to absorb sunlight in order to convert it to energy. Chlorophyll appears green because it reflects back blue to green wavelengths of light. When a phytoplankton bloom, or an abundance of phytoplankton caused by weather conditions occurs, the concentration of chlorophyll in the water causes a blue-green tint.

Phytoplankton

Phytoplankton

How does the phytoplankton bloom occur in the first place? This is caused by an event called upwelling.  Upwelling occurs from a complex movement of winds and water off the coastline. As winds blow parallel to the coast, the rotation of the Earth can cause water to move perpendicularly to the wind and away from the shore. As the surface waters are pushed further offshore, water is drawn from below to replace it. This colder, more nutritious water brought to the surface is a critical factor for what causes the phytoplankton blooms to transpire. During the upwelling that caused the phytoplankton bloom in July, scientists noticed shore temperatures dropping down to as low as 60 degrees Fahrenheit while offshore temperatures increased upwards to as high as 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

Graphic representation of upwelling from NOAA

Graphic representation of upwelling from NOAA

I have talked about why the water was blue. But some of you might be wondering how more things floating in the water somehow made it clearer. This answer to this is a drought. Inland New Jersey had been suffering abnormally dry weather patterns for a few months prior to the bloom. Scientists hypothesize that this significantly reduced freshwater runoff into the ocean largely contributed to the newfound clarity of the Atlantic Ocean.

Are these phytoplankton blooms dangerous? The dangers of phytoplankton blooms vary from species to species.  Some are known to produce very harmful toxins. Other blooms on the other hand are non-toxic. The phytoplankton bloom off the coast of New Jersey belonged in the latter group, with no observable ill side effects. Phytoplankton actually helps the whole world as it produces between 70-80% of the oxygen we breath! These blooms also help support the local marine life by attracting many types of small animals, including zooplankton, krill, and small fish. These small animals in turn attract larger fish, dolphins, and even whales that will feed on them.

Image of Phytoplankton bloom from space, July 2016, taken by NASA

Image of Phytoplankton bloom from space, July 2016, taken by NASA

Unfortunately this phenomenon only lasted little over a week before weather conditions changed and the clarity and tropic colors were lost. While uncommon for phytoplankton blooms off the coast of New Jersey to last this long, they do occur every now and again for a few days. So if you find yourself in the area, swing by our lovely shores for the chance to see this nonpareil event.

-Jeremiah Buttram, Franciscan University of Steubenville;

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center

Sources

Gaines, Dr. Steve. “Upwelling” NOAA Ocean Explorer. Web. 3 August, 2016.

Ranosa, Ted. “Phytoplankton Bloom Causing New Jersey Waters To Turn Aquamarine”14 July 2016,Tech Times. Web. 3 August, 2016.

Skeldon, Dan. “Tropically Colored Waters Making A Green Splash in South Jersey”.  Press of Atlantic City. Web. 3 August 2016.

What’s Everybody Raven About?

What’s Everybody Raven About?

On a particularly fortunate voyage at the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, one gets to view smiling Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins and the mysterious Humpback Whale. In the grand scheme of things, whales are a pretty common sighting on trips. This week, the stars finally aligned. After pulling a sharp 180 degree turn my nerves raced, worried for some reason that in the fifteen minutes it would take us to reach the sport fisher boat that had called in the sighting, that the humpback would have realized that I was interning and booked it out of there. My brain finally got the best of me, remembering that whales simply can’t swim that fast; fifteen minutes would be plenty of time. And that it was. As fate would have it, I came home after a great day to find an article featuring a newly discovered whale species found off the coast of Alaska. With the image of a whale’s body and the objectively adorable faces of dolphins fresh in my mind, I looked farther into the currently unnamed whale and found the perfect combination of the two. An artist rendering revealed a species with the expanse of a whale, but the head of a Dolphin.

Uko Gorter’s rendition of the unnamed, newly discovered beaked whale.

Uko Gorter’s rendition of the unnamed, newly discovered beaked whale.

Legends of this not so beastly mammal have been circulating in Japanese fishing and whaling communities since the earth twentieth century. Seen very rarely, the creature was described as a smaller, darker Baird’s beaked whale. The very similar anatomy mislead scientists until 2013, when a Japanese science journal published a research article on three cadavers that had washed ashore proposing that they actually represented an entirely different species. Referred to as “The Raven” the species appeared to be juvenile Baird’s beaked whale, but examination of the teeth revealed that the whales were indeed fully grown. The notable size difference as well as the varying color between the two animals. Even with these three cases, however, the scientific burden of proof had not been met and research continued.

Shown here is the cross section of a tooth pulled from the mouth of a sea otter. Aging in all marine mammals is very similar to the aging of trees. Every year, another layer grows outwards creating a set of rings that can help scientists identify the age of the animal.

Shown here is the cross section of a tooth pulled from the mouth of a sea otter. Aging in all marine mammals is very similar to the aging of trees. Every year, another layer grows outwards creating a set of rings that can help scientists identify the age of the animal.

As curiosity about this new, small, darker species of whale developed, more information seemed to come to light. Institutions of all sizes and credibility, from NOAA, to the Smithsonian, to a small high school in Alaska, upon further investigation noticed that the whale samples they had in their midst had been incorrectly labeled as Baird beaked whales when infact they belonged to this new species, nicknamed “The Raven” for its long snout. With more samples available, scientists were able to point out even more differences between the Raven and the Baird’s beaked whale, including but not limited to the more compact skull and anterior set and differently shaped dorsal fin.

Now correctly identified as a new whale species, the skeleton of the raven hangs in the atrium of Unalaska High School in the Aleutian Islands.

Now correctly identified as a new whale species, the skeleton of the raven hangs in the atrium of Unalaska High School in the Aleutian Islands.

While scientists have never observed the Raven alive, the carcasses that have washed ashore have been exceedingly helpful in identifying traits specific to the newly discovered creature at a molecular level. Genetic testing has revealed that what is now known as the Baird’s beaked whale is actually aBaird’s beaked whale and shares this title with the Raven. DNA sequencing suggests that they exist not only within the same genus but even the same species. Besides differences in DNA that code for size and color, variation also exists in the mitochondrial DNA between the two subspecies, affecting the metabolic process. No other findings have been announced yet and in light of the events recency, I highly doubt that the entire genome of each mammal has been sequenced.

As humans we have conquered all of the land available to us on this planet. We have also conquered the skies and land outside of this planet like the moon and mars. We have harnessed the energy and convenience of the sea, but still have no idea what remains below the surface. 80% of the ocean still remains unexplored. Perhaps 79.999% now considering not one but two species have been discovered hiding in the depths within the past month. This is what I had and still do have my sights set on as an aspiring marine biologist. The ocean is an awe inspiring, unpredictable, grab bag of opportunity for discovery. I hope someday to be operating the hand that holds on to one of those mysteries. But, more importantly I hope to be the hand that shows it to the entire world.

Photo of another newly discovered, blind transparent fish discovered at the bottom of Mariana’s Trench in the beginning of July 2016.

Photo of another newly discovered, blind transparent fish discovered at the bottom of Mariana’s Trench in the beginning of July 2016.

-Kate Rose

University of Florida, Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center

 

Works Cited

Kennedy, Merrit. “Mysterious And Known As The ‘Raven’: Scientists Identify New Whale Species.” NPR.NPR, 27 July 2016. Web. 31 July 2016.

Morin, Phillip A., C. Scott Baker, Reid S. Brewer, Alexander M. Burdin, Merel L. Dalebout, James P. Dines, Ivan Fedutin, Olga Filatova, Erich Hoyt, Jean­Luc Jung, Morgane Lauf, Charles W. Potter, Gaetan Richard, Michelle Ridgway, Kelly M. Robertson, and Paul R. Wade. “Genetic Structure of the Beaked Whale GenusBerardiusin the North Pacific, with Genetic Evidence for a New Species.” Mar Mam Sci Marine Mammal Science(2016): n. pag. Web. 31 July 2016. <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mms.12345/full>.