Vyacheslav Rozhnov: Everyone expects science to be sensational

Vyacheslav Rozhnov: Everyone expects science to be sensational

13 November 2013

Vyacheslav Rozhnov is head of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ permanent expedition for the study of animals listed in the Russian Red Data Book of endangered species and other important animals, Deputy Director of the Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, DSc (Biology). He shared his perspective on the specifics of working on beluga whale expeditions and scientific achievements in this field.


Question: Tell us about the expedition. How is it called and what specific objective does in pursue?


Vyacheslav Rozhnov: The expedition is called “The Russian Academy of Sciences’ permanent expedition for the study of animals listed in the Russian Red Data Book of endangered species and other important animals.” This expedition contains a sub-programme on distribution and migrations of beluga whales, which means that scientists are focused on beluga whales. However, while we collect data on beluga whales, tigers or polar bears, we are constantly on the lookout for data on other species, and we put everything we see on record. What’s the study of beluga whales all about? Not just about studying where they live, swim and what they eat. We must study the distribution of fish stock. And what is this fish stock? What do beluga whales eat? They eat salmon, for example. Since salmon is a commercial species, we must understand the distribution of the salmon population when it reaches the estuary, since beluga whales also go there to eat salmon.


Furthermore, we want to know, for instance, how beluga whales interact with other cetaceans, since there are other types of whales in the Okhotsk Sea. And how do beluga whales get along with sea calves? Direct contact is possible between such animals. The most important thing is that they all eat fish, which means that their relationships are competitive. We must understand these relations and try to uncover them. That’s what we are doing. For this reason, we are collecting data on sea calves and other whales in this area.


There is another problem, and it's a very interesting one. You know what happened in Fukushima, right? Since beluga whales eat fish, and fish eat various small vertebrates and invertebrates, there is a food chain in place. Any pollutants spilled into the ocean travel up the food chain. Beluga whales are at the top end of this food chain, and can thus serve as indicators of the state of the ecosystem. This is a very important and urgent issue for us. Since humans have a huge impact on Arctic ecosystems, we are in desperate need of such indicator species so that we can use them to make forecasts for this ecosystem.


Question: What happened to the tracking devices that were placed on the animals? Are they still out there but no longer working?


Vyacheslav Rozhnov: These devices have different fates. If the device is well fastened, it stays on the animal. However, since transmitters attached to whales face strong water resistance, they eventually detach from the beluga’s skin. We have seen beluga whales with small scars on them from devices that fell off, but have yet to find a whale bearing one. If we encounter such an animal – great, it’ll be a beluga we already tagged. There is no harm done with such devices. As I’ve already said, the whale does not feel any pain when the tracking device is attached to it.


Question: What about the necessary equipment? Do expedition participants travel with it from Moscow or is some equipment available on site?


Vyacheslav Rozhnov: The expedition owns the equipment it uses. However, we rent some facilities, such as a warehouse or a house to store boats, nets for catching beluga whales and some other heavy equipment so that we don’t have to transport it back and forth from Moscow to Vladivostok and Kamchatka. This equipment is stored for the winter period and removed from storage when we come back to continue our work. When we need to use equipment stored on Kamchatka, for instance, on the White Sea, we have to ship it there. Unfortunately, we can’t afford to buy separate equipment for the Okhotsk Sea, the White Sea and the Laptev Sea, etc.


Question: What about sensational discoveries on beluga whales? Have you discovered anything lately or are things going as usual?


Vyacheslav Rozhnov: Everyone expects scientists to produce sensational results. In the Soviet era, the beluga whale was a commercial species, so fishing professionals had to be aware of its distribution, dispersal, population levels, etc. Airplanes were used to count beluga whales. When the beluga whale ceased to be a commercial species, it remained relevant for dolphinariums and oceanariums, but all controls that used to be in place were lost. Our expedition helped recover data on distribution and population levels of beluga whales. We have also flown airplanes to count whales and have developed special counting methods. We can now make an estimate of the beluga whale population in the Okhotsk Sea and the White Sea.


Regarding serious discoveries, it was thought that beluga whales from the White Sea use to leave through the White Sea Throat, pass through the Barents Sea and reach Novaya Zemlya. We have placed tracking devices on beluga whales in the White Sea, and neither of them, to our great surprise, has left this sea during the year. This means that it’s a sort of an isolated group. Such developments are fascinating and have very interesting scientific and practical implications, because they point to intrapopulation variability of the beluga species, the existence of isolated groups, etc. Building on this data, it becomes possible to determine a plan for capturing whales for oceanariums and dolphinariums. This is the first point.


The second interesting point was that we compared migration routes and starting points for beluga whales in the Okhotsk Sea with oceanologic data received through our cooperation with a French company that provides satellite tracking services using the Argos system. It turned out that beluga whales start moving with the change in the water temperature. This is how we got a better insight into these migrations, which is important scientifically and practically. It allows us to better forecast the population levels of beluga whales, their location, etc. These data are also important for oceanariums.


Question: In your opinion, how hard is it for belugas living in oceanariums and dolphinariums? Would they be better off in the wild?


Vyacheslav Rozhnov: Everyone would be better off in the wild, even humans. However, it turns out that humans have certain needs, including the need for entertainment. It’s just the way it is. Some people are against zoos, but I think that zoos, if they operate well, are necessary for educational purposes, since people can see animals that can be found in the wild. People should know how to behave with such animals. Contact with animals always nurtures kindness, generosity, etc. – values that are crucial for human relations. How can a child grow up without a cat, a dog or a hamster? That’s not the way it should be. Children must have something to show affection to, not only mom and dad, but also creatures that need their care. Oceanariums and dolphinariums do the same thing, since not all people can see a beluga whale in the sea, but in the oceanarium they can learn that such marvellous creatures can be found in the deep blue and that they are close to humans in terms of brain capacity, as many think. This is one side of the issue. If we create conditions in oceanariums to ensure that the whale has a comfortable environment… Beluga whales and dolphins take great pleasure in human interaction. Moreover, it turns out beluga whales can facilitate the healing of many human diseases, especially in children. There is even a medical discipline called dolphinotherapy. Such treatment methods should be used in both children and adults. Ensuring humane animal treatment and creating a favourable environment in zoos and dolphinariums is crucial.