Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Understanding beluga reproduction

            Justin Richard’s experience at Mystic Aquarium extends beyond his former career as a beluga whale trainer and his present role co-teaching the marine mammal seminar at the University of Rhode Island. He also conducts research on the aquarium’s belugas, and since 2013, more than 35 URI students have been part of his research team.
            While working as a trainer, he became interested in learning more about beluga reproductive physiology after training one of the whales that was involved in the first-ever artificial insemination of a beluga whale.
            “I realized that little was known about beluga reproduction, and there was a lot that trained animals could teach us about it,” he said. “There is a very clear connection between
Justin Richard collects a blow sample from a beluga at Mystic Aquarium.
understanding their reproduction and understanding their population dynamics in the wild. If we’re going to understand how populations grow, you have to understand their reproduction.”
            That led him to collaborate with Becky Sartini, associate professor of animal science and an expert in mammalian reproductive physiology.
            “Because we have access to belugas in the aquarium year-round and can train them to provide physiological samples, we can fill in the knowledge gaps that we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do in the wild, because the animals breed in the late winter in the Arctic when they’re completely inaccessible,” he said.
            Richard has spent the last five years validating methods of measuring reproductive hormones. For instance, he figured out he could identify when female whales have ovulated and the status of their pregnancy from hormones in the mucus from their exhalation or blow, and he trained the whales to provide a sample on command. He has also validated the use of ultrasound to assess male reproductive physiology.
            Now he’s trying to link behavioral observations with these physiological measures so he can determine a whale’s reproductive status based entirely on the behaviors they exhibit.
            “They’re very showy animals, almost like birds, where the males perform a lot of display behaviors, which suggests that the females are choosy over who they mate with,” he said. “And that leads to many different management and conservation questions.”

This story is a sidebar to a feature story in the summer 2019 issue of University of Rhode Island Magazine.

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