Meet Valeria Vergara, co-Director of Raincoast’s new Cetacean Research Program

Dr. Valeria Vergara has joined our team as Senior Scientist and co-Director of our newest research program focusing on cetaceans.

Dr. Valeria Vergara is an experienced cetacean researcher that has participated in studies of humpback whales, Guiana dolphins, narwhals, and several killer whale projects in Alaska, British Columbia, Argentina, and the Canadian Arctic. She is a member of the SRKW Sanctuary Technical Working Group, and is actively involved in initiatives to reduce underwater noise impacts in killer whale habitat. For the better part of the last two decades she has devoted much of her time to studying the communication system of beluga whales and addressing the challenges this sound-centered species face in an increasingly noisy environment. She has published many peer-reviewed studies, and her work has been featured in various documentaries, magazines and newspapers.

We posed some questions to Valeria to get to know her better. 

So you study whale communication… What is the coolest thing you can share with us about how whales communicate? In what ways are whales acoustic animals?

I could say that it is probably very cool that toothed whales (killer whales, belugas, sperm whales) communicate through their noses (more accurately, producing sounds through structures deep inside their blowhole)… or that whales and dolphins do not have external ears. They use their jawbones for hearing!

Whales use sound for nearly every aspect of their lives: to communicate, maintain contact, to navigate, to detect prey and avoid predators. This makes sense since water transmits sound much more efficiently than air (nearly five times faster in fact!) and over much greater distances.

Since their world is an acoustic one, understanding whale communication offers a window into their social and cultural lives. Killer whales and sperm whales have distinct vocal traditions, much like humans, and these traditions reflect their social organization. Humpback whales sing remarkable, complex songs that evolve over time, with all the whales within a population learning and changing their song synchronously in a beautiful example of cultural evolution.  Bottlenose dolphins, and very likely beluga whales too, as my preliminary work has shown, swim around broadcasting their own identity, or “names” to keep track of their strong and complex social relationships. These are all examples of what, to me, is the coolest aspect of the study of cetacean communication: that through understanding their sounds, we understand their lives.

Can you tell us about your extensive experience and the scientific bonafides that you bring to our team and this program?

I’ve always been fascinated by the rich social lives of animals, and by the way they think and communicate and perceive the world. I moved from Argentina to Canada in 1989 to pursue this passion, aided by a full scholarship from the Canadian International Development Agency.  My career path has been an unusual one: from canids to whales! I studied coyotes for my undergrad thesis and red foxes for my masters, and had a couple of jobs working with wolves and Darwin foxes.  I then embarked on a PhD study of beluga whales, through the University of British Columbia, and I have since spent the last two decades of my life studying how these incredibly social, long-lived beings communicate in an underwater world, and addressing the challenges that belugas and other sound-centered species face in an environment that is increasingly riddled by human-made noise. 

I bring to this team, and particularly to this exciting new program, extensive experience designing and leading marine mammal research initiatives, identifying the key conservation implications of diverse lines of research, and using research findings to inform management decisions and mitigation strategies. I am also an avid science communicator, sharing research stories and findings with the public any chance I have, which is an important aspect of Raincoast’s philosophy: educate and inform!  

Last but not least, my friend and colleague, Lance Barrett Lennard, and I have worked together very well for many years and in many capacities, we share  both common interests and a deep research philosophy. It is more than exciting to be co-creating this program with Lance!

What are some interesting new discoveries you can share with us? 

Through my PhD work I found that beluga calves are not born knowing the extensive repertoire of beluga sounds, but instead they babble like human toddlers, slowly learning the adult-like vocalizations as they age.

More recently my research assistant and I published an exciting new discovery that resulted from my work in the High Arctic:  that belugas may have identity calls similar to bottlenose dolphin signature whistles. These identity calls would help belugas keep track of one another acoustically. A cautionary statement:  the evidence is preliminary, and we are currently working in the St Lawrence to corroborate this finding.

Even more recently my colleagues and I published a study indicating that the communication range (i.e how far a call can be detected by a conspecific) of beluga contact calls is about 18 times larger for adults than for newborn calves.  This is because newborns produce much softer contact calls than adults – their calls are especially weak during their first week of life. These small communication ranges make calves particularly sensitive to increases in underwater noise, which can reduce the distance that a newborn calf can be heard by its mother to only a few tens of meters.  This is an important finding in light of the beluga neonate mortality documented in recent years in the St Lawrence Estuary. Anthropogenic noise compromising mother-calf acoustic contact may be a contributing factor. This study also illustrates how understanding mother-calf communication helps guide mitigation efforts and management of human activities in breeding grounds.

What is next for your beluga research?

In the St Lawrence Estuary I am collaborating with DFO and GREMM colleagues to test the idea that contact calls are individually distinct, building on the preliminary results from Cunningham inlet. To that end, I am analyzing Dtag recordings (tags that temporarily attach to the whales via suction cups and record all sorts of important data) of photo-identified whales.

Also in the St Lawrence Estuary, my graduate student Jaclyn Aubin (@JaclynAbin) is  looking at the contact call repertoires in three putative beluga communities, to determine the presence of vocal dialects in beluga whales. A tantalizing notion!

In Churchill I hope to study the relationship between group composition, behaviour and acoustics, to develop more effective passive acoustic monitoring strategies (this is funding-dependent!). I will also be leading the Conservation Journey: Beluga Whales trip with our partners, Frontiers North Adventures

On a personal level, why is this work important to you?

Ultimately what drives me is a profound curiosity about these intelligent, social, loquacious species, and a strong desire to foster awareness about the threats that whales and dolphins face in a rapidly changing world. 

We have all heard that “you can’t save what you don’t love, and you can’t love what you don’t know.”  There is so much truth in this statement!  It also reflects the intrinsic value of long-term field studies. Understanding a species, especially weaving together the intricate details of the lives of long-lived, aquatic mammals that are out of sight underwater a large part of the time, can take many lifetimes!

What has been your best wildlife encounter?

I cannot talk about wildlife encounters without talking about belugas. One of my most memorable days was in the summer of 2017 in Churchill, Manitoba. We had made it up river to a small shallow bay known as “Mosquito Point”, an area where, according to local knowledge, belugas birth their calves. We had the hydrophone connected to a speaker on our little research boat. Suddenly the unmistakable, long, repetitive, maternal contact call that belugas produce when their calves are born, blasted through the speaker in rapid succession. When I heard those characteristic and familiar maternal contact calls, I immediately searched the turbid waters…and indeed, the newborn calf was easy to spot,  it was right by our research boat…alone!  It still had that smooth shiny skin and light brown coloration typical of neonates, and we could see its fetal folds. I was sure that the urgent calling we were hearing was the mother of this calf. The water was thick with mud because of the recent floods, so a separation of only a few meters would have put mom out of sight of her newborn. A few minutes later the calf disappeared from view, and the maternal contact calls finally ceased. I want to believe that this indicated that the mother-calf pair was successfully reunited. This is the beauty of understanding the communication system of a sound-centered species. The sounds begin to act as indicators of what we might otherwise miss, such as whether there is a newborn calf in a group.

You can help

Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

We investigate to understand coastal species and processes. We inform by bringing science to decision-makers and communities. We inspire action to protect wildlife and wildlife habitats.

Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.