Alyson Fleming, adjunct research professor of biology and marine biology, has received an $836,031 National Science Foundation grant to study the effects of ecosystem changes on Antarctic blue and fin whale populations.

In the early 1900s, commercial whaling began in Antarctic waters, and in less than 70 years, populations were reduced from thousands to only a few hundred. Without data about whale biology and ecology from that time, little is known about how the ecosystem functioned prior to the population reduction. Using rediscovered archived whale specimens, Fleming hopes to fill the data gap.

“An archive of baleen plates from 800 Antarctic blue and fin whales harvested between 1946 and 1948 was recently rediscovered that will shed insight into historic whale ecology,” said Fleming. “By using these historic specimens and applying modern analyses, we can better understand these large whales, their response to disturbance and environmental change, and the impact that commercial whaling has had on the structure and function of the Antarctic marine ecosystem.”

As one of the largest and most extreme ecosystems on the planet, very few records of past conditions of Antarctic ecology exist. The data collected from the specimens will provide valuable historical context, helping decode one of the world’s great scientific mysteries.

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Originally published Oct. 3, 2019.