The following is a description of the Beluga Bits project, from the research team behind this extremely fun Zooniverse project. Read on to find out about their important research, and how you can get involved:
Beluga whales are a charismatic, highly social species of whale found throughout the circumpolar Arctic and sub-Arctic. Thousands of beluga migrate into the southern and western parts of Hudson Bay each summer after the sea ice melts. While they are in the Bay, they frequent coastal waters and estuaries like the Churchill River estuary in Manitoba, Canada. There are so many beluga in the Churchill River in the summer that a thriving ecotourism industry has developed, providing amazing opportunities to see and study beluga whales.
Visitors to Churchill during July and August can see beluga in-person with one of the local tour companies. For those at home, you can tune in from anywhere in the world and virtually view whales through the explore.org Beluga Whale Cam operated by Polar Bears International. This camera is mounted underneath a boat that slowly travels around the estuary and live streams underwater video. What makes this an incredible experience is that these beluga are not threatened by the boats and will often approach, going right up to the camera. Researchers at Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada have led the Beluga Bits project since 2016. This is a collaborative project which uses these underwater images of beluga (and other marine wildlife) to better understand this amazing ecosystem.
Beluga Bits has evolved quite a bit since it started. Our current workflows involve clipping out individual beluga from each image, then classifying these clipped images into groups that we can analyze further. This will allow us to gather similar photos more easily so we can address various research questions. For example, we can look at all of the images where we can see the beluga’s underside in case we want to differentiate male from female beluga. More broadly, we can use these images to investigate questions about beluga whale natural history – such as who is using the estuary? Do they return each year? How often do females have calves? We can also learn about ocean and ecosystem health using these images. For instance, looking at changes in how often we see certain injuries may help determine if threats are increasing or decreasing for this population.
To date, thousands of citizen scientists have helped us to collect and classify millions of photos. We have already had some exciting findings thanks to their efforts. Our volunteers have pointed out interesting ‘rosette’ formations (check out the photo above!), identified new jellyfish species in Hudson Bay, and used markings to ‘recapture’ individual beluga. We even spotted a previously satellite tagged beluga, a very rare sighting, and one that helps biologists to understand the long term impacts of their research techniques. We’re sure this is just the start of many exciting updates to come!
Fortunately, this population of beluga is considered “Not at Risk” in Canada and numbers around 50,000 individuals; however, there are still concerns about how climate change, ocean pollution, and increased boat traffic in the Arctic could affect them. These underwater images will allow the researchers at Assiniboine Park Zoo to answer important questions and identify emerging threats before they harm beluga health or abundance within the estuary. Thanks to the help of citizen scientists from around the world, what we learn from this population will inform how beluga are managed and conserved in the ecosystem they call home.