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DNA analysis: Wayward Puget Sound beluga likely travelled from north of Alaska

Study of skin and fecal remnants helps scientists find it likely came from thousands of miles away
A beluga whale that was seen in Puget Sound this month likely came from north of Alaska. (North Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Fisheries West Coast Region/Twitter)

A beluga whale that swam thousands of miles south on a rare trip to Puget Sound earlier this month is likely from waters north of Alaska.

Scientists collected the whale’s genetic material during its Washington stay and an analysis of that DNA helped give a glimpse into where the beluga’s trip began.

In an update this week, the North Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said the mammal travelled thousands of miles around Alaska and through the Bering Sea, before arriving off Tacoma – where it was last seen on Oct. 20.

Scientists collected material known as environmental DNA (eDNA) from the water near the whale. Those remnants included skin, fecal and other cellular debris that came from the animal.

READ: Beluga whale traverses B.C. waters on way to first Puget Sound sighting since 1940

“The information that we can obtain from eDNA is more limited than what we can generate from a tissue sample, but can provide insight about where the whale is likely from,” said Kim Parsons, a research scientist at NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

A short genetic sequence from the whale most closely matches other belugas from the Beaufort Sea and high Arctic, a group that migrates between the United States, Canada and Russia. The update said the Beaufort Sea beluga population was estimated at 40,000 in 1992, but researchers are still analyzing results from a 2019 survey to get updated figures.

It also noted that belugas are known to occasionally roam beyond their usual Arctic range, as there have been several reports of them off the U.S. northeastern coast. One was also photographed off San Diego last summer.

NOAA said the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network is prepared to respond if the whale becomes stranded and sightings should be passed along to the Orca Network at 1-360-331-3543.

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Jake Romphf

About the Author: Jake Romphf

In early 2021, I made the move from the Great Lakes to Greater Victoria with the aim of experiencing more of the country I report on.
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