Where the Wild Whales Are

Researchers map genetic variation across the seascape
Scott Baker’s investigations of whale and dolphin DNA have taken him from Alaska’s humpback feeding grounds to the illegal marine mammal trade in Asia and an Academy Award-winning documentary. (Photo: David Baker)

Scott Baker’s investigations of whale and dolphin DNA have taken him from Alaska’s humpback feeding grounds to the illegal marine mammal trade in Asia and an Academy Award-winning documentary. (Photo: David Baker)

Some researchers are gene hunters. They track wildlife populations by following differences and similarities in genetic profiles. Now a research team led by Scott Baker, associate director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, is helping scientists visualize genetic information from individual whales across the ocean. A member of Baker’s team, Ph.D. student Dori Dick in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, is developing a suite of mapping tools and the website, geneGIS.org.

When fully operational, the software will enable researchers to browse and summarize genetic records to understand how whale populations mix and move.

“The goal is to enable researchers to visualize and study spatial patterns of genetic variability,” says Dick. “This information is important for conservation and management purposes. It could indicate that different groups of individuals require different management strategies.”

The project focuses on an international effort to track humpbacks in the North Pacific. Baker recently showed that humpbacks there constitute five distinct populations.

An example of a map created using geneGIS tools within ArcGIS to visualize the sighting locations of humpback whales from two maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) lineages in the Gulf of Alaska.  (Map courtesy of Dori Dick)

An example of a map created using geneGIS tools within ArcGIS to visualize the sighting locations of humpback whales from two maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) lineages in the Gulf of Alaska. (Map courtesy of Dori Dick)

Among collaborators are two scientists at Esri, the world’s largest GIS research and development firm: software developer Shaun Walbridge and Dawn Wright, Dick’s adviser and Esri chief scientist; and scientists affiliated with the Cascadia Research Collective and the Wildbook Project, a collaborative effort to use open-source software for tracking wildlife.

On Feb. 20, Dick will lead a workshop on geneGIS tools at the OSU Fisheries and Wildlife Graduate Student Association’s annual symposium.

The Office of Naval Research provided funding support.

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