New England Aquarium researchers outline life history of right whale found dead off Long Island, New York.
More than 2% of highly endangered right whales were killed this past summer.
The highly endangered right whale found dead off Long Island, New York, was identified by New England Aquarium researchers as Snake Eyes, a male at least 40 years old with a well-known and highly detailed life history.
Philip Hamilton, a 30-year right whale scientist with the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, had known the distinctly marked Snake Eyes by sight for three decades. Snake Eyes had been named for two bright white scars on the front of his head that looked like a pair of eyes when he swam forward.
Hamilton provided the final confirmation on the identity of the highly decomposed carcass and later wrote to colleagues, “It is with a heavy heart that we announce the death of an old friend – Snake Eyes, Catalog #1226.”
Snake Eyes’ life had been chronicled for decades in the right whale species catalog maintained at the Aquarium. Every photo of right whales shot from researchers in Canada and the United States is sent there for ID and analysis.
Right whale scientists had been gravely concerned about Snake Eyes for more than a month. He had been last seen alive on August 6 entangled in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada with rope going through his mouth while his tail appeared to drag toward the bottom. It appeared that he may have been anchored to the bottom. He was not spotted again by any further aerial surveys in that region until his body was discovered on September 16 floating south of Fire Island, New York. A necropsy was performed September 18 by the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). No details on the outcomes of that animal autopsy are yet available.
Hamilton wrote, “With slightly more than 400 right whales alive today, every single right whale matters. The loss of Snake Eyes is a tragedy, but a tragedy made that more grievous knowing he is the 10th right whale to die this year. That is more than 2% of the population. Even worse, a recent study found that no deaths of adult or juvenile right whales could be attributed to natural causes. They are all caused by us humans and thus arguably avoidable.”
Snake Eyes was first spotted in July 1979 just east of the New Hampshire coast on Jeffreys Ledge. Research was just beginning on right whales, and his age at first sighting was unknown. In the 1980s and 1990s, Snake Eyes was seen almost exclusively in the Bay of Fundy (east of Maine and west of Nova Scotia) and in the Roseway Basin (south of Nova Scotia).
For decades, the Bay of Fundy was the principal summer and early autumn feeding habitat for a large percentage of the right whale population.
However, as deep waters warmed in the nearby Gulf of Maine, the preferred zooplankton fed upon by right whales has largely disappeared over the past decade. That food loss has led to a dispersal of right whales searching for new summer feeding habitats. Strangely, Snake Eyes appeared to anticipate this. Starting in 2000, he changed his pattern, more than a decade before other whales shifted their feeding habitats in response to climate change. In 2015, many right whales started feeding in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but Snake Eyes was first spotted there as early as 1998. He returned there in at least eight of the ensuing 20 years, including all of the last four years.
Over 40 years of his long sighting history, Snake Eyes was only seen twice during the late fall and early winter. In December 2008, he was seen near Jordan Basin in the middle of the Gulf of Maine. The Northeast Fisheries Science Center discovered this area in the 2000s. New England Aquarium researchers were co-authors on a paper about the evidence suggesting this area may be a mating ground. The paper found that the second most likely area for mating was on Jeffreys Ledge in the late fall and early winter, and that is exactly where Snake Eyes second fall-winter sighting was in late November 2010.
Given that Snake Eyes was at least 40 years old and had been seen participating in courtship behavior dozens of times over the years, one might expect him to be one of the great fathers of the population. In right whales, paternity is determined through genetics analyses. So far, not a single calf has been attributed to Snake Eyes.
Snake Eye’s sighting history and more pictures of him in the New England Aquarium’s Right Whale Catalog can be found at: rwcatalog.neaq.org