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Grey whale by NOAA and Dr. Steven Swartz

One of our professors has used genetics to identify the birthplace of a grey whale which was discovered nearly halfway round the world from its native habitat, a new record for the longest recorded distance for a marine mammal, fish or reptile.

It's in the DNA

The whale was first spotted off the coast of Namibia, South-West Africa, in 2013, the first grey whale ever to be recorded in the South Atlantic.

Professor Rus Hoelzel, from our Biosciences Department, collaborated with three other researchers to try to identify where this whale had been born.

With help from the Namibian Dolphin Project, photographs and DNA samples were taken from the male whale and compared them to other samples on a database.

Potentially from an endangered population

The DNA samples taken from the whale showed that it was born in the North Pacific, meaning it had travelled at least 20,000km when it was spotted off Namibia.

Although the research is not conclusive, Prof Hoelzel and the team also believe the whale comes from an endangered western population thought to include approximately just 200 individuals.

Global change

The sighting of this whale so far from its native habitat could have conservation implications if they are able to explore new habitats in a changing world.

This grey whale from the Atlantic would have most likely travelled across the Arctic. This has been made possible during warming periods when the ice melts, creating a passage big enough for the whales to travel and explore new areas.

There are a number of known previous recordings of grey whales outside of their native habitat and there potentially could be more as the global climate warms.

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Image by NOAA and Dr. Steven Swartz.