Endangered Blue Whales Make 'Unprecedented' Comeback to South Georgia Island
The largest animal on Earth is proving that wildlife protections work.
A team led by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) recently reported the initial results of three years of expeditions to the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, an important summer feeding ground for whales that became a killing field when the whaling industry discovered it during the first half of the 20th century. But now, after 30 years of protections, the whales are returning. Researchers counted 36 sightings of 55 critically endangered Antarctic blue whales during their 2020 trip, up from just one sighting of two whales in 2018, according to BAS and The Independent.
"[It's] truly, truly amazing," Dr. Trevor Branch of the University of Washington told BBC News. "To think that in a period of 40 or 50 years, I only had records for two sightings of blue whales around South Georgia. Since 2007, there have been maybe a couple more isolated sightings. So to go from basically nothing to 55 in one year is astonishing."
It's excellent news for the #whale as following 30 years of protection several species appear to be in recovery wit… https://t.co/fUZqdMnEbh— Antarctic Survey (@Antarctic Survey)1582183596.0
BAS said the number of blue whales its team had seen was "unprecedented." But it also marks a return to a pre-whaling norm.
"I see them in hundreds and thousands," whaler and explorer Carl Larsen said of the island's whales when he first visited South Georgia at the start of the 20th century, according to BAS. He opened a whaling station, and was soon joined by others. Together, they decimated the island's whale population by more than 176,000 over 60 years. According to some estimates, whaling also wiped out 97 percent of blue whales, The Independent reported. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) finally instituted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986.
Whales were barely seen around South Georgia between the 1960s and the 1990s, when they began to make a comeback. In addition to Antarctic blue whales, the BAS-led team recorded 790 humpback whales over 21 days, and estimates that there are now more than 20,000 of them feeding off the island in the summer. It also reported frequent sightings of southern right whales in 2018, but few in 2019 and 2020, suggesting they had gone elsewhere to feed.
"After three years of surveys, we are thrilled to see so many whales visiting South Georgia to feed again," project leader Dr. Jennifer Jackson of BAS said in the press release. "This is a place where both whaling and sealing were carried out extensively. It is clear that protection from whaling has worked, with humpback whales now seen at densities similar to those a century earlier, when whaling first began at South Georgia."
Jackson told BBC News that she thought the whales' return to the island represented a long term trend, not a temporary change in habits caused by a shift in the movements of krill, the whales' prey. She said the data suggested the survey took place over normal years for krill.
Antarctic blue whale expert Paula Olson, who was also on the trip, said it was the first to survey whales around the whole island in decades.
"[W]e truly felt like explorers," she told The Independent.
But it won't be the last assessment of Antarctic blue Whales. The IWC Scientific Committee will conduct an overall assessment of the species' recovery next year.
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It is undisputed that vitamin D plays a role everywhere in the body and performs important functions. A severe vitamin D deficiency, which can occur at a level of 12 nanograms per milliliter of blood or less, leads to severe and painful bone deformations known as rickets in infants and young children and osteomalacia in adults. Unfortunately, this is where the scientific consensus ends.
Where Does the Deficiency Begin?<p>Nobody knows exactly how much vitamin D a person actually needs. The question of when a deficiency starts is correspondingly controversial. However, vitamin D is becoming increasingly popular.Not only is the pseudo-scientific literature on the "sun vitamin" experiencing an upswing, but the number of published studies has also increased enormously in recent years. For example, in 2019 <a href="https://academic.oup.com/edrv/article/40/4/1109/5126915" target="_blank">a study found that</a> Vitamin D is responsible for keeping the skeleton functional and is associated with cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and various types of cancer. <br></p>
An All-Rounder<p>Vitamin D levels in the body rise and fall according to sun exposure. If sufficient UV rays reach the skin, the body is able to produce the vitamin itself. However, the human body only derives an estimated 10 to 20 percent of its daily requirement from food.</p><p>The vitamin D that we synthesize from sunlight or food is not biologically active at first. Before the kidneys can produce the biologically active form of the vitamin, known as calcitriol, and release it into the blood, some metabolic processes must take place beforehand.</p><p>In addition, many organs have receptors to which the precursor of calcitriol binds. Further, this substance is also present in blood.</p><p>From this precursor, the organs then produce calcitriol themselves, which the body then uses for countless other processes in the body. This form of vitamin D thus regulates insulin secretion, inhibits tumor growth, and promotes the formation of red blood cells as well as the survival and activity of macrophages, which are important for the <a href="https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/5/7/2502/htm" target="_blank">immune system.</a></p>
Low Vitamin D, Severe COVID-19 Disease?<p>A research study carried out <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352364620300067?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">at the University of Hohenheim</a> has now established a link between vitamin D deficiency, certain previous diseases, and severe cases of COVID-19.</p><p>According to the study, "there is a lot of evidence that several non-communicable diseases (high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, metabolic syndrome) are associated with low vitamin D plasma levels. These comorbidities, together with the often accompanying vitamin D deficiency, increase the risk of severe COVID-19 events."</p><p>"This statement is completely correct," said Martin Fassnacht, head of endocrinology at the University Hospital of Würzburg. However, he qualifies that it is a pure association, "i.e. a mere observation that these events occur together.</p><p>Dr. Fassnacht is very critical of the hype surrounding vitamin D, but not because he denies the vitamin serves important functions. However, studies on humans have not been able to show that vitamin D has the healing powers many often propagate.</p><p>Fassnacht says, "If you take a closer look, the hopes that the administration of vitamin D has a healing effect have not been confirmed so far."</p>
Association Versus Intervention Studies<p>Many studies on the vitamin are association or observational studies. "By definition, these studies cannot prove the causal relationship, but only point to mere correlations," said Fassnacht. The physician tries to illustrate this with an example:</p><p>"Imagine two groups of 80-year-olds. One group is spry, active and does sports. If you compare them with another group living in nursing homes, the difference in vitamin D levels will be dramatic. Life expectancy would also be extremely different."</p><p>But to try to explain the difference in fitness by vitamin D status alone is far too simplistic. "Vitamin D levels are a good measure of how sick someone is. But not more," says Fassnacht. </p><p>According to Fassnacht, none of the intervention studies carried out to date -- that specifically examined the effect of vitamin D on various diseases -- has been able to confirm the previous association and laboratory studies or the presumed positive effect of vitamin D.</p>
Further Research Is Needed<p>"If a coronavirus infection is suspected, it is therefore absolutely necessary to check the vitamin D status and quickly correct any possible deficit," said the recommendation of the paper published by the University of Hohenheim.</p><p>"Studies are underway to see whether vitamin D helps in COVID-19 infection, but I personally do not believe that this is really the case," says endocrinologist Fassnacht. Nevertheless, he says it is of course useful to carry out these studies.<br></p><p>"I don't want to rule out that there are actually subgroups of people who benefit from an additional vitamin D dose," he says. After all, this has been proven to be the case with a severe deficit.</p><p>In view of the study situation, Fassnacht does not think much of preventive, nationwide vitamin D substitutes. "My belief that the vitamin helps somewhere is very low. But, of course, I can be wrong."</p>
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