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Thursday, October 23, 2014

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Animal News Desk / Cathy Kangas

Published 4:55 pm, Monday, July 7, 2014
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Recently, a young beluga whale was spotted in the Taunton River near Fall River, Mass.; a highly unusual occurrence as belugas live in arctic and sub-arctic climates and travel in pods. So how did this whale find itself all alone in the Taunton River?

There are several possible reasons for this rare sighting of a big, beautiful aquatic mammal, one of them is climate change. Beluga whales in our rivers may become more common due to changes in water temperature, and particularly the warming of Atlantic coast waters. It's possible they are having to range farther for food. Mystic Aquarium has scientists trying to find out the exact reason.

Belugas are in danger of extinction. Mystic Aquarium is in the forefront of protecting them. As the only aquarium in New England with belugas on site, Mystic is in the unique position of being able to study the belugas and use its research to protect the species in the wild.

"We are intimately involved in beluga research with our animals at the Mystic Aquarium and travel to the Arctic every year to study them in their natural habitat. This unusual sighting in our own backyard is anomalous behavior for a beluga and we would like to find out why," noted Dr. Tracy Romano, executive vice president of research and zoological operations at Mystic Aquarium.

A team from Mystic Aquarium went to Fall River to look for the whale, no easy feat as belugas can travel hundreds of miles in a short time span. While they didn't find the beluga, which may have found its way back the sea, they were able to observe changes in the coastline and make recommendations for how to further prepare New England for the realities of a new environment.

One good bit of news: The fact that the beluga was spotted in a river can also signify that our waters are cleaner than in decades past and more welcoming to various species.

The visit of the beluga is a call to action. How do we protect these whales from climate change? What can we learn from a stray beluga that will help us better protect them in the wild? What happens if their food supply is threatened from over-fishing or man-made pollution? Mystic Aquarium is working with dozens of communities in New England to find answers that protect the delicate balance between man and nature.

Mystic Aquarium has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to conduct research on how to sustain the beluga population in the wild particularly in the Arctic Ocean and St. Lawrence Seaway. We rely on Mystic Aquarium to teach us and our children the importance of these magnificent creatures.

New Canaan resident Cathy Kangas is a member of the board of directors of the Humane Society of the United States. She can be reached at cathy@praibeauty.com.