The Low Hanging Fruit

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Humans have been contributing to the extinction of whale species since long before industrial-scale whaling in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to a new study.

A research team found evidence that medieval European hunters played a significant role in the demise of some species from the North Atlantic, the New York Times reported.

Historical medieval texts detail how whalers would target certain types of cetaceans because of their docile nature – and knew which ones to avoid because of their aggression.

For their paper, zooarchaeologist Youri van den Hurk and his team collected more than 700 pieces of whale bones at archaeological sites from Norway to Portugal.

They then studied the collagen protein in the bones, which differs across whale species and families. Their analysis revealed a disproportionately large presence of whales that are now almost if not extinct in the North Atlantic.

More than 330 samples of the remains belonged to right whales, a species that is still present in North Atlantic waters – although there are only around 300 globally. Meanwhile, 110 bones belonged to gray whales, which are not well documented and disappeared from the North Atlantic centuries ago.

The team explained that both these species were known for their docile temperament, which made them the preferred catch of hunters. They theorized that centuries of targeting these two large mammals contributed to their population collapse in the region.

Despite the gloomy findings, van den Hurk noted that the study could help scientists in conserving current existing populations.

“By looking into the past, we can optimize our understanding of what potential modern or future whale individuals will do in European waters and protect them more efficiently,” he added.

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