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Quebec Bulletin
December 2013 - January 2014/Volume 16/Number 6

The St. Lawrence's Beluga Whales Take Pregnancy Tests!

DFO J.P. Sylvestre

A brand new research project on the St. Lawrence's beluga whale population began at the end of summer 2013 and will continue for three years. The main purpose of this study is to administer pregnancy tests to the belugas in the St. Lawrence to determine whether their reproduction rate is normal. Fisheries and Oceans Canada research scientist Véronique Lesage is leading the project in collaboration with experts Robert Michaud from the Groupe de recherche et d’éducation sur les mammifères marins (GREMM), Greg O’Corry-Crowe from Florida's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and Tim Frasier from Nova Scotia's Saint Mary's University. The team is interested in a concern about the possibility of low recruitment in the St. Lawrence beluga whale population, raised during a 2007 review of the population's status.

To obtain data, the research scientists will conduct an intensive field campaign every year for three years to take random skin and blubber (fat) samples from some 40 beluga whales. Progesterone, a hormone secreted in large amounts by pregnant females, will be measured in the belugas' blubber to determine the percentage of sample-group females that are pregnant at the very end of the summer (September). Since belugas reproduce only once every three years, this percentage is expected to be close to 33% if the pregnancy rate is normal. DNA analysis of the skin will allow scientists to determine the animal's gender.

The sampling of the belugas' skin and blubber also provides the opportunity to explore a variety of interesting questions. In particular, it will be possible to conduct comparative studies with more northern beluga populations that are less exposed to human activities. These studies will help determine the levels of certain stress hormones and the expression of certain genes that can provide information about the general health of this threatened population. A research project worth following…

Sylvi Racine

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