High resolution satellites revolutionize whale spotting from outer space and give hope for imperiled right whale

New high resolution satellite image processing technology allows researchers to identify and count right whales at the ocean surface or to depths of up to 15 metres — described as a boon to tracking the health of whale populations.

The very trait that pushed southern right whales close to extinction — lolling near the surface of warm waters — is helping to revolutionize the way whales are counted.

New satellite technology has allowed the use of high-resolution photographs and image processing software to detect the crustaceans at the surface or to a depth of 15 metres in shallow waters off Argentina.

High-res satellites are a cost-effective improvement over the way whale populations are currently calculated — narrowly limited counts from shore, a ship or a plane.

Scientists used the most powerful commercial observation platforms available can see surface features as small as 50 centimetres in black and white.

A test of the satellite’s image-recognition capacity, reported in the journal Plos One, detected about 90% of southern right whales swimming in the Golfo Nuevo on the coast of Argentina compared to a manual search of the imagery.

The accuracy surpasses previous attempts at space-borne assessment and could revolutionize the way whale populations are estimated.

“Our study is a proof of principle,” Peter Fretwell of the British Antarctic Survey told the BBC.

“But as the resolution of the satellites increases and our image analysis improves, we should be able to monitor many more species and in other types of location.

“It should be possible to do total population counts and in the future track the trajectory of those populations.”

For this study, Fretwell and his colleagues purchased a single, massive image taken in September 2012 by the WorldView2 satellite. The image covers 113 square kilometres including Golfo Nuevo, a circular gulf off the Argentine coast and an area where southern right whales are known to breed and raise their young from July through November.

By looking at the same image in different wavelengths, including one able to penetrate 15 metres beneath the ocean, the researchers were able to spot 55 probable whales and 22 possible whales in the gulf as well as 13 whale-shapes underwater.

“Satellite imagery provides much more accurate and wider coverage,” Fretwell told the Los Angeles Times. “If this works, we can take it out to many other species as well.”

These animals were driven to near-extinction in the early 20th century. Recognized as slow, shallow swimmers, they were the “right” whales to hunt.

For this reason, their numbers dropped from a pre-whaling population of 55,000-70,000 to just 300 by the 1920s.

“The same reason they are the right whales to catch makes them the right whales to look for by satellite,” said Fretwell.

Their numbers have seen something of a recovery, but without the means to carry out an accurate census, it is hard to know their precise status.

Scientists already have used satellite imagery to count populations of penguins in Antarctica, and Fretwell said similar work was being done with seals. The key to using satellites to track animals is not the size of the animal but how much it stands out from its environment, he said.


World’s oldest prehistoric toilet unearthed in Argentina


A giant prehistoric ‘toilet’ has been unearthed in Argentina after scientists uncovered thousands of fossilised feces deposited 240-million-years ago.

The dung deposited by rhino-like megaherbivores was clustered together, suggesting for the first time that ancient reptiles shared collective dumping grounds.

The communal latrines are now being described as the world’s oldest public toilet.

Many modern animals defaecate in socially agreed spaces for social and biological reasons, such as to mark territory, as a defence against predators and to prevent intestinal parasite re-infestation.

The fossil ‘coprolites’, which were up to 40cm wide, were discovered in patches across the Chanares Formation in La Rioja province. These dung piles were deposited there by the Dinodontosaurus, an eight-foot-long ancient animal similar to the rhino, common in the Triassic period.

The researchers recorded a density of 94 poos per square metre, spread across patches 900 square metres in size and preserved by a sheet of volcanic ash, lead researcher Dr Lucas Fiorelli told the BBC.

The study, published in Scientific Reports, could provide more information on diet and diseases.

“When cracked open they reveal fragments of extinct plants, fungi, and gut parasites,” Martin Hechenleitner, a fellow author on the study said.

“Each poo is a snapshot of an ancient ecosystem – the vegetation and the food chain.”

The authors concluded: “This is the first evidence of megaherbivore communal latrines in non-mammal vertebrates, indicating that this mammal-type behaviour was present in distant relatives of mammals, and predates its previous oldest record by 220 Mya.”


Thanks to Dr. D for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

Kelp gulls may be responsible for the worst-ever Right Whale die-off


Scientists still don’t know why hundreds of baby southern right whales are turning up dead around Patagonia, a decade after observers first saw signs of the worst die-off on record for the species, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

With no evidence of infectious diseases or deadly toxins in whale tissue samples, scientists are scrambling to determine a cause of death. Some are even pointing a finger at blubber-eating birds.

The whales come to the peaceful Atlantic bays around Peninsula Valdes along Argentina’s Patagonian Coast to give birth and raise their young. At least 605 dead right whales have been counted in the region since 2003, WCS officials say. Of those, 538 were newborn calves. Last year, the mortality event was especially severe, with a record-breaking 116 whale deaths, 113 of them calves.

“In 2012 we lost nearly one-third of all calves born at the Peninsula,” said Mariano Sironi, scientific director of the Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas in Argentina. “Southern right whales have their first calf when they are nine years old on average. This means that it won’t be until a decade from now that we will see a significant reduction in the number of calves born, as all of the female calves that died will not be contributing any new offspring to the population,” Sironi, who is also an advisor to the Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program, added in a statement.

Sironi and colleague Vicky Rowntree, who is co-director of the monitoring program, have studied a strange phenomena that could be stressing southern right whales. They say kelp gulls at Peninsula Valdes land on the backs of the cetaceans to eat their skin and blubber.

“The attacks are very painful and cause large, deep lesions, particularly on the backs of young 2-6 week-old calves,” the researchers said in a statement from WCS. “This harassment can last for hours at a time. As a result, right whale mothers and their calves are expending much precious energy during a time of year when mothers are fasting and at a site where little to no food is available to replenish fat reserves.”

The situation is discouraging for a species that had made a significant comeback since its population was depleted by the whaling industry.

“The southern right whale population is still only a small fraction of its original size, and now we have reason to worry about its recovery,” Rowntree said.

Though the southern right whale is not listed as endangered, conservationists warn that the species’ sister populations could go extinct if hit with a mysterious die-off on this scale. For instance, there are thought to be just about 500 North Atlantic right whales remaining.

Thanks to Dr. Lutter for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.


Edith Casas Wants To Marry Victor Cingolani, Convicted Of Murdering Her Twin Sister, Johana


A woman in Argentina wants to marry the man who was convicted of murdering her twin sister.

Edith Casas, 22, believes that her fiance, Victor Cingolani, “would not hurt a fly” and is innocent in her sister’s death, the BBC reported.

Cingolani is currently serving a 13-year sentence for the murder of Johana Casas, a model whose body was found in a field with two bullet wounds in 2010. Cingolani had dated Johana, but the two were not in a relationship when she was killed.

“[Edith Casas] isn’t jealous,” Cingolani told Argentine newspaper Clarin, according to the BBC. “We always talk about Johana, about how she was.”

The convict also noted that while his relationship with Johana Casas was “casual,” he is “in love” with Edith.

The wedding was supposed to take place Saturday, El Patagonico reported. However, a civil judge has postponed the event after Casas’ mother, Marcelina del Carmen Orellana, submitted a request for a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation of her daughter.

Orellana, believes the would-be bride is clearly “psychologically ill.” Casas’ family has stated they feel she is guilty of “a terrible betrayal.”

Cingolani’s attorney, Lucas Chacon says that while he can sympathize with the family’s concerns, “Edith is not marrying a killer.”

Chacon insists that Marcos Diaz, who was dating Johana Casas when she was killed, is the real murderer, the Mail reported. Diaz is scheduled to go on trial next year.


Prehistoric penguins were taller than most people today


Paleontologists working at Argentina’s Natural Sciences Museum of La Plata province found the fossil remains of an ancient penguin taller than most men. The bird stood six and half feet tall, and lived roughly 34 million years ago. The team’s lead researcher, Marcelo Reguero said the newly discovered species will “allow for a more intensive and complex study of the ancestors of modern penguins.”

“This is the largest penguin known to date in terms of height and body mass,” said team member Carolina Acosta. She also noted that the modern emperor penguin, which grows to about 4 feet tall had been the previous record holder.

The fossil was located on the icy continent of Antarctica; the team plans to return during the region’s summer to attempt to uncover more fossils from the ancient bird as well as study how it would have moved. Notably, past studies of other prehistoric penguins suggested that they were not black and white like the bird of today, but instead sported reddish brown and gray plumage.


Premature Baby in Argentina Found Alive in Morgue Refrigerator 10 Hours After Being Pronounced Dead



One-week-old Luz Milagros Veron is Argentina’s miracle baby. Pronounced dead after her premature birth, the baby withstood more than 10 hours in a morgue refrigerator before being found alive.

“Today is the eighth day of my daughter’s resurrection,” the girl’s father, Fabian Veron, told CNN Wednesday.

Doctors at the Perrando Hospital in northeast Argentina can’t explain it, and every, doctor, nurse and morgue worker who dealt with the baby has been suspended as an investigation gets underway, officials said.

Luz Milagros remains in stable condition but she’s in intensive care, a health official said.

Analia Boutet, the baby’s mother, had given birth four times previously, and had recently suffered a miscarriage. This baby was born on April 3, three months early, and had no vital signs, hospital director Dr. Jose Luis Meirino told CNN.

The gynecologist on hand didn’t find any signs of life, so he passed the baby to a neonatal doctor who also didn’t find vital signs, Meirino said.

The doctors observed the baby for a while, and only then, pronounced her dead.

The hospital followed protocol, Meirino said.

Two morgue workers then put her body inside a little wooden coffin and placed it in the freezer.

“Up to that point, there were still no vital signs,” the hospital director said.

That night, Boutet began insisting on seeing her dead daughter’s body, Veron said.

She wanted to take a picture with her cell phone of the baby just as she lay, as a memory, the husband said.

It took some cajoling, but finally, hospital officials allowed the couple to visit the baby in the hospital morgue around 10 p.m., Veron said. As many as 12 hours had passed since the baby had been declared dead.

“They put the coffin on top of a stretcher and we looked for a little crowbar to open it because it was nailed shut,” Veron told a local television station. “It was nailed shut. I put the crowbar in there and started prying. I took a breath and took the lid off.”

Boutet approached the baby’s body, touched her hand, and heard a cry, Veron told CNN.

She jumped back. “It’s my imagination, it’s my imagination,” she repeated.

But the baby was alive, and crying.

Veron’s brother-in-law rushed the baby back to the neonatal ward. He clutched her close to his chest for warmth. She felt like an ice-cold bottle against his body, the relative told Veron.

“I can’t explain what happened. Only that God has performed a miracle,” Veron said.

His daughter was given a fresh, if precarious chance, and along with it, a new name.

She was going to be named Lucia, but after finding her alive, her parents said she would be Luz Milagros — the Spanish words for light and miracles.

In the meantime, an investigation has been launched at the hospital.

“I don’t have an explanation for what happened, but if there is culpability we’ll see what we’ll do,” Rafael Sabatinelli, deputy secretary of health in the Chaco region, told CNN.

“The personnel who were involved have responsibilities, and therefore, will have to be held accountable for their actions,” he said in a statement.

Both Sabatinelli and Meirino said it was the first time they had witnessed an incident like this, but that a nearly identical thing happened in Israel in 2008.

In that case, a baby was found alive in a morgue refrigerator after having been declared dead.

Some doctors at the time said that it was possible that the low temperatures inside the refrigerator had slowed down the baby’s metabolism and helped her survive. However, that baby later died.