Invasive Research - Part 1

by Jörn Selling

Text: Jörn Selling, Biologist firmm

Invasive Research is how we call all kind of research for which it is necessary to get more into the object of study, in this case, for example, with a scalpel or introducing transmitters into cetaceans. The most extreme form of investigation is the one where laboratory animals die from it.

Many have been the findings thanks to the death of these animals. Now a days in civilized countries they try to use less harmful methods and use more cell cultures or three-dimensional digital models.

To be able to do invasive research, special permits are needed if it’s dealing with protected and endangered animals. This season we have in the Strait of Gibraltar a group of scientists that have been studying cetaceans for years in this area. In 2007 they received permission to use crossbows to be able to extract skin samples (biopsies) for isotope studies and genetical analysis. What a coincidence that at the end of that season there was an outbreak of Morbillivirus which caused the death of many pilot whales. The scientific world claims stress to be one possible reason for this event. That same season the “Tangier Med” construction (one of the biggest deep-sea harbours of the North of Africa) came to an end, which together with the whale watching companies, that behaved pretty bad that year, could have given them enough of it.

This year, the same group of scientists, had the brilliant idea to “poach” radio-transmitters on the dorsal fins of the pilot whales. This way they are easier and faster to be found for their research on which animals belong to which group and this way analyse their social bounds. This is no fun for these cetaceans, even though scientists claim to cause no harm to them. A week ago, we stopped our boat close to a group of pilot whales that were being molested by these scientists as they were putting the transmitters on them, the animals took advantage of us being there and hid behind our boat seeking for shelter…

Most of the time, skin lesions left by these transmitters heal but it is not always the case. One of the pilot whales of the Strait, which is called Gonzo, has an area of necrosis (tissue death) on the right side of the dorsal fin, despite of the transmitter having been fixed to the left side. The dorsal fin is starting to fall to the right side. This can be argumented as much as one wishes but the fact that seems true is this invasive method being the cause of this incident.

Gonzo Gonzo

Also Edu, another pilot whale which we see frequently in the same group of Curro, was victim of transmitter-sticking. It has caused us confusion and anger the fact that a group in which one of the animals, like Curro, who has been fighting for his life for years now, is being molested.


This could maybe be true in a fish shoal but even there it has been discovered that some are more courageous and some more cautious and every fish has its own important task within the shoal. When it comes to cetaceans, with their complex social life, their culture, their use of names (at least among dolphins) and their individual character, I don’t agree with that opinion. I do not find myself alone with my point of view among scientists, the IWC (International Whaling Commission) as well is trying to find out to which extend the killing and disturbance of certain individuals may affect the success of survival of the pod.


In my opinion it is very doubtful to deprive these intelligent animals from their right to be considered as individuals when “managing” their populations. Especially if considered that older animals with more experience on survival make up a great deal of the populations general survival success. I believe it is about time we ask ourselves for how long will we continue to see these animals as just a protein source or subject of study and what all this will bring us in the future.

We will keep on having a closer look on Gonzos evolution as well as the rest of the animals that have transmitters on them and will act upon when necessary, to bring more peace in the future for the cetaceans in the Strait of Gibraltar.

This link will guide you to the second chapter, by Eleonore Op de Beeck.

Go back