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Scientists unlock clue about rare whale species in Gulf of Mexico: its diet

The critically endangered species is targeting a nutritious fish to stay healthy, according to new research.
 
There are only about 50 Rice's whales remaining in the Gulf of Mexico, making them a critically endangered species. New research by Florida International University scientists shows the animals are picky eaters, with 70% of their diet coming from one fish species.
There are only about 50 Rice's whales remaining in the Gulf of Mexico, making them a critically endangered species. New research by Florida International University scientists shows the animals are picky eaters, with 70% of their diet coming from one fish species. [ Courtesy of the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center ]
Published April 27, 2023|Updated April 30, 2023

One of Earth’s rarest whales is a picky eater.

A single fish species makes up roughly 70% of the Rice’s whale diet, new research shows, unlocking yet another secret behind the elusive Gulf of Mexico whale that could help inform future conservation efforts.

The ultrarare whale’s entree of choice? The silver-rag driftfish, a tiny schooling fish that’s common in the gulf and high in calories.

Because the whales burn energy by diving more than 800 feet for their food, the deep-swimming driftfish have all the high-quality ingredients for the perfect meal, scientists say. Plenty of protein and lots of lipids.

An ultrarare and critically endangered Rice's whale comes up for air in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in this photo by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. New research shows the whales are picky eaters.
An ultrarare and critically endangered Rice's whale comes up for air in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in this photo by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. New research shows the whales are picky eaters. [ TONY MARTINEZ | Courtesy of Tony Martinez and the NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center ]

“It’s a huge piece of information for us: If we want to protect these animals, we need to know what they eat,” said Jeremy Kiszka, a marine scientist at Florida International University and lead author on the peer-reviewed study published this week in Scientific Reports.

“If this prey is impacted by any human activity — or climate change — that might actually compromise the survival of this whale species in the Gulf of Mexico,” Kiszka said in an interview.

“Now that we know what they eat, we need to better protect their habitat and their prey.”

While this new clue is yet another tool to help inform policymakers’ conservation decisions, it also underscores the vulnerability of the Rice’s whale.

The animals are selective with their food, which could make them more vulnerable to fishery declines and habitat loss, Kiszka said.

“Environmental changes in the region have the potential to influence prey species that would make them less available to Rice’s whales,” the study reads.

Researchers believe there are only 50 Rice’s whales left, making it one of the world’s most endangered whale species.

Their only habitat is the northeastern Gulf of Mexico, and until recently, scientists believed they were a subspecies of the more common Bryde’s whale. But in January 2021, after genetic tests, federal ocean scientists announced the Rice’s whale was a species of its own.

An infographic outlines some of the key findings of the latest Rice's whale study by Florida International Univeristy.
An infographic outlines some of the key findings of the latest Rice's whale study by Florida International Univeristy. [ Courtesy of Florida International University ]

The animals, which can grow up to 40 feet in length, like to feed during the day, according to Kiszka.

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Usually when a researcher wants to study a whale’s diet, they can use washed-up carcasses to take a look in their stomachs.

But Rice’s whales are obviously hard to find, so this research team, which included scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had to get creative.

Over a five-year period, the team took noninvasive skin and blubber samples from 10 whales, or about 20% of the estimated population. They used a crossbow to collect their biopsy samples. Each whale they found was mature and seemed to be in good physical condition, with no signs of emaciation or struggling, according to the study.

Then they used a method called stable isotope analysis on those samples, which essentially traces the chemical makeup of the whale’s diet.

The team also collected local fish species and used mathematical models to reconstruct the whale’s diet by comparing the chemical composition of the fish to the whales.

As Kiszka explains it: “You are what you eat.”

“Quality probably matters the most for these animals. They’re looking for high-quality, high-fat content prey in their ecosystem.”

Conservation efforts are needed

There’s evidence from across the world that when a prey declines, so does its marine mammal predator. In the study, scientists point to the decreasing abundance of the Mediterranean common dolphin. That species is struggling because of the decline of its prey, small pelagic fish in the Ionian Sea.

That’s a cautionary tale for what could happen to the Rice’s whale if conservation isn’t prioritized. Last year, scores of scientists signed a letter to the Biden administration urging a moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the gulf, and also urged the reduction of large boat traffic.

“The apparent reliance on, and selectivity for, a prey species that constitutes the majority of the diet of Rice’s whales makes the protection of (the fish) an essential component of protection and conservation strategies for this whale species,” the study states.

“This is especially important in light of the high level of industrial activity within the (Gulf of Mexico).”

This is the first study highlighting what Rice’s whales eat in the gulf, and also the first to examine why they may be targeting their particular prey, according to the research.

The study began in 2017, before researchers knew the Rice’s whale was its own unique species. But that’s only increased the stakes of the research since the discovery, Kiszka said.

“This is a whale species that occurs right in our backyard — and nowhere else,” he said. “They’re super critically endangered, and we need to protect them urgently.”