Gray whales shrinking fast as climate warms

June 14, 2024
A gray whale is seen in this undated photo. — AFP/file

WASHINGTON: Pacific coast gray whales have shrunk in length an astonishing 13 percent since 2000, adding to evidence that climate change and other human activities are making marine mammals smaller, a study says.


Their diminished size could have big impacts on survival rates and reproductive success -- and trigger ripple effects throughout their entire food webs. For the paper, researchers focused on the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) -- around 200 whales that are part of the wider Eastern North Pacific (ENP) population of around 14,500.

Considered “ecosystem sentinels,” they stay closer to shore, feeding in shallower, warmer waters, than the wider population that inhabits colder, deeper Arctic seas. Prior research had shown they are in worse shape than their counterparts, with smaller bodies, heads and flukes.

“Now we know they have been shrinking in body size over the past 20-40 years, which may be an early warning sign that the population is at risk of declining,” Kevin Bierlich, an assistant professor at Oregon State University and co-author of the paper in Global Change Biology, told AFP on Thursday.

By analyzing drone images taken from 2016-2022 of 130 individuals whose age was estimated or known, the scientists found a striking trend: a gray whale born in 2020 is likely to reach a full-grown adult length of approximately 1.65 meters (5ft 5in) less than a counterpart born in 2000. This represents a significant 13 percent decrease in the total length of mature gray whales, which typically measure between 38-41 feet in length.