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25-Jul-2003

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Whale numbers, before hunting



Humpback whales in the singing position. According to the authors, whales were far more abundant before commercial hunting than previously thought. Courtesy of NOAA. Click here for a high resolution photograph.

When Europeans first came across the Atlantic to North America, more than 300 years ago, they marveled at the large numbers of whales they could see in the ocean. But, hunters have killed a great many whales since then. Scientists Joe Roman of Harvard University in Boston, MA and Stephen Palumbi of Stanford University in Stanford, CA wanted to know how many whales there were before the hunting began. They studied the DNA of three kinds of whales: humpback, fin, and minke whales. The large amount of variation in the whalesí DNA sequences was a big clue that the populations used to be much larger than they are. According to the scientistsí calculations, there were once ten times more humpback and fin whales than there are now. Because the numbers of these types of whales are now so low, the researchers donít think the populations will survive if they are hunted commercially. The scientists published their research in the July 25, 2003 issue of the journal Science.

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