Researchers at Oregon State University are turning to new technologies to capture never-before-seen whale behaviors from a totally new perspective. Using unmanned aerial systems – drones – scientists have recorded 27,000-kilogram (60,000-pound) gray whales displaying unexpected behaviors, including headstands, swimming upside down, and playing “tag” between feeding.
In all, the researchers documented 24 different gray whale behaviors – all new traits that lead researcher Leigh Torres says can help improve protections of important habitats.
“Studying marine animals is often a challenge because they live most of their lives out of sight, underwater,” Torres told IFLScience. “With drones, we can observe whales for longer periods in an undisturbed manner, letting us peek into their lives and understand their behavior patterns better.”
This new information is published in Frontiers in Marine Science and can help conservation management efforts when it comes to threats like vessel strikes, ocean noise, fisheries entanglements, and habitat disturbance. Her team observed gray whales’ foraging behavior off the coast of Oregon when they’re feeding in the summertime and found the massive mammals use different tactics to find and capture food
“They do things like ‘headstands’ where the whale’s fluke is in the upper water column and its head is digging or poking into the substrate,” explained Torres. “We also documented the whales snapping their jaws to capture prey, and swimming on their sides or upside-down for long periods." The whales also appear to release streams of bubbles from their mouth when they come to the surface, and this is often followed by a stream of sediment.
Not all behaviors are explained, though. For example, the researchers aren’t sure why whales would swim upside-down for up to 3 minutes at a time, but believe it could help them focus their eyes better. Drone footage also shows the whales “plowing” through the substrate and scooping up mouthfuls of mud before straining the sediment out of their baleen at the surface.
Another novel recorded behavior was how social gray whales are on their feeding grounds. The team says they expected whales to be solitary during feeding months, but the drone footage demonstrates something much different. As whales move around their feeding grounds, Torres says they coordinate behaviors and feeding efforts, intentionally touching and bumping against other and, according to Torres, “even appeared to practice copulation.”
The study, now in its third year, is the first to use drones to study marine mammal behavior, and Torres' team believes the same method can be applied to many other marine megafauna species, but don't attempt to catch your own footage. These drones are flown under a research permit that allows researchers to fly them close to the whales, but the general public should not fly drones closer than 90 meters (300 feet) from a marine mammal.