Valeria Vergara, PhD

Dr. Vergara holds a BSc in Biology and a Masters in Behavioral Ecology, both from Trent University in Ontario, and a PhD in Zoology from the University of British Columbia.

She is particularly interested in the communicative and perceptual capacities of marine mammals and the conservation implications of such capacities. In the last two decades she has participated in a diverse array of cetacean field studies, including humpback whales, killer whales, Guiana dolphins, narwhals and beluga whales in various areas of Canada.

Her doctoral research was the first to document how beluga calves develop their rich repertoire of vocalizations, and to identify contact calls used to maintain group cohesion and mother-calf contact, critical in an underwater environment where animals cannot rely on vision. More recently, she paired underwater recordings with aerial drone footage to provide preliminary evidence that beluga contact calls may be individually distinctive and function as “acoustic name tags” and she is currently working in the St Lawrence Estuary to corroborate this finding. Her most recent study illustrated how anthropogenic noise affects the communication range of adult and newborn calls in endangered St Lawrence belugas, and showed that masking of the quiet, underdeveloped calls of neonates by noise can impair mother-calf contact.

Her work continues to address the challenges that sound-centered species face in their increasingly noisy environment, and has been featured in various documentaries, magazines and newspapers including National Geographic, The Nature of Things, New Scientist, The Globe and Mail, and CBC Radio.

Dr. vergara holds a BSc in Biology and a Masters in Behavioral Ecology, both from Trent University in Ontario, and a PhD in Zoology from the University of British Columbia.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Peer reviewed publications

Vergara, V., Wood, J., Lesage, V., Ames, A., Mikus, MA., and Michaud, R. 2021. Can you hear me? Impacts of underwater noise on communication space of adult, sub-adult, and calf contact calls of endangered St. Lawrence belugas (D. leucas). Polar Research 40, 5521. D0I: https://doi.org/10.33265/polar.v40.5521

Bates, A. E., Mangubhai, S., Milanés , C. B., Rodgers, K., and Vergara, V. 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic as a pivot point for biological conservation. Nature Communications 12, 5176. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-25399-5

Bates, A. E., Primack, R. B., PAN-Environment Working Group, and Duarte, C. M. 2021. Global COVID-19 lockdown highlights humans as both threats and custodians of the environment. Biological Conservation, 109175.  DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109175 (V. Vergara member of the PAN-Environment Working Group). 

Ames, A. and Vergara, V. 2020. Trajectories of vocal repertoire development in beluga calves: insights from studies a decade apart. Aquatic Mammals 46(4): 344-366

Vergara, V. and Mikus, M. 2019.  Contact Call Diversity in Natural Beluga Entrapments in an Arctic Estuary: Preliminary Evidence of Vocal Signatures in Wild Belugas. Marine Mammal Science 35(2): 434-465. DOI: 10.1111/mms.12538

Vergara, V. and Barrett-Lennard, L.  2017. Call usage learning by a beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) in a categorical matching task.  Int J Comp Psychol 30: 1-20

Vergara, V., Michaud, R. and Barrett-Lennard, L. G. 2010. What can captive whales tell us about their wild counterparts? 

Identification, usage and ontogeny of contact calls in belugas. Int J Comp Psychol Psychol 23: 278-309 

Leung, E., Vergara, V. and Barrett-Lennard, L. 2010. Allonursing in captive belugas (Delphinapterus leucas). Zoo Biology 29:1-5 

Vergara, V. and Barrett-Lennard, L.  2008. Vocal development in a beluga calf (D. leucas).  Aquatic Mammals 34: 123-143 

Vergara, V. 2000. Comparison of parental roles in male and female red foxes, V. vulpes, in southern Ontario. Can. Field-Nat. 115(1): 22-33

Vergara, V. 2000. Two cases of infanticide in a red fox, V. vulpes, family in southern Ontario. Can. Field-Nat. 115(1): 170-173

Technical reports

Vergara, V., Dearden, A., Chapman, J., and Miller, A. 2021. Understanding underwater noise pollution from marine vessels and its impacts on whales, dolphins and porpoises. Ocean Watch Spotlight Report. Ocean Wise Conservation Association. https://assets.ctfassets.net/fsquhe7zbn68/24WS9Xs6rrOp9ziqapeN7o/3d35140ba2b4d651947c489e56753002/OceanWatch-UnderwaterNoise.pdf

Dearden, A., Chapman,  J., Miller, A., Vergara, V., Haulena, M., Akhurst, L., Dares, L., and Rowley, A. 2020. COVID-19: A story of marine mammals. Ocean Watch Spotlight. Ocean Wise Conservation Association, Vancouver, Canada. 16 pg. ISBN: 978-1-7772408-4-4

Vergara, V. 2019. Framework for noise-related metrics ecologically relevant for beluga whales, with emphasis on the St Lawrence Estuary Beluga Population. Report prepared for Université du Québec en Outaouais (UQO), Mar 2015, 21pp.

Heise, K.A., Barrett-Lennard, L.G., Chapman, N.R., Dakin, D.T., Erbe, C., Hannay, D.E., Merchant, N.D., Pilkington, J.S., Thornton, S.J., Tollit, Veirs, V.R., Vergara, V., Wood, J.D., Yurk, H.  2017. Proposed Metrics for the management of underwater noise for Southern Resident Killer Whales. Coastal Ocean Institute Report Series 2, Vancouver, 30pp.

Wood, J. and Vergara, V. 2014. Potential for masking of Southern Resident Killer Whale Calls and Echolocation Clicks due to Underwater Noise. Port Metro Vancouver Report Series, December 2014, SMRU Canada Ltd. 45pp.

Vergara, V., Michaud, R. and Barrett-Lennard, L. G. 2009. Contact call usage in a wild beluga population: Challenges and lessons of a playback study. Report prepared for DFO, Canada, March 2009. 10pp.  

Proulx, G. and Vergara, V. 2001. Wildlife habitat attributes for wildlife tree patch quality assessment in CANFOR’s managed landscapes.  Alpha Wildlife Research and Management Ltd. 64pp.

Selected lectures and conference presentations

Vergara, V. et al. 2019. Impacts of underwater noise on mother-calf contact in endangered belugas. World Marine Mammal Conference. Dec 9-12, Barcelona, Spain.  

Vergara, V. et al. 2019. Impacts of underwater noise on mother-calf contact in endangered belugas. International Workshop on Beluga Whale Research and Conservation. March 12-14, Mystic, CT, USA. 

Vergara, V. 2019. The Story Collider. Public presentation for Canada’s Science Literacy Week. Sep 17, Vancouver, BC. 

Vergara, V. 2019. From Canada to Argentina: Studying belugas and killer whales, two cultural species. Public presentation at the CIMM (Centre d’Interprétation des Mammifères Marins). Jul 29, Tadoussac, QC.

Vergara, V. 2019. Acoustic communication in belugas: A sound-centered species in today’s noisy world. Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Biology Seminar Series. Feb 1 (remote seminar).  

Vergara, V. 2019. Do beluga whales have vocal signatures? Ocean Wise Public Lecture Series. Jan 19, Vancouver, BC. 

Vergara, V. 2018. Contact-call diversity in an Arctic estuary: Preliminary evidence of vocal signatures in wild belugas. BC Marine Mammal Symposium. University of British Columbia, Nov 24, Vancouver, BC.  

Vergara, V. and Mikus, M. 2017. Multiple natural replicates in an Arctic estuary provide evidence of signature calls in wild belugas. 22nd Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, Oct 22-27, Halifax, NS.  

Vergara, V. 2016. Sounds of the Sea. Creative Mornings International Lecture Series. Dec 02, 2016.

Vergara, V. and Michaud, R. 2015. Bird’s eye viewing and underwater eavesdropping: a marriage of technologies to 

advance beluga whale research. 21st Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, Dec 11-19, San Francisco. 

Vergara, V. and Barrett-Lennard, L.  2015. A quiet haven in a noisy world: baseline data on critical contact calls in a pristine beluga nursery habitat. 21st Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, Dec 11-19, San Francisco.

McKillop, M., Vergara, V., Barrett-Lennard, L.G. 2010. Potential impacts of shipping noise on mother-calf acoustic contact in belugas. Abstracts of the 24th Annual Meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. 

Vergara, V. 2008. Identification, usage, and ontogeny of contact calls in belugas (D. leucas).  International Conference on Vocal Communication in Birds and Mammals. Jul 31-Aug 2.  St Andrews, Scotland. 

Vergara, V. 2007. Acoustic communication and vocal learning in belugas (D.leucas). First International Workshop on Beluga Whale Research, husbandry, and management. March 9-12, Valencia, Spain. 

Vergara, V. 2005. I say potato, you say potahto: Categorical matching of in-air calls by a juvenile beluga (D. leucas).  16th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, San Diego, Dec 10-16. 

Selected media coverage

Under the sea: What coronavirus is doing to the world’s marine mammals. Global News. July 30, 2020.  

The Canary of the Sea. National Geographic Overheard Podcast – Aired Jul 21, 2020. 

Ocean Noise and the Silence of the Whales. A CBC/ICI TV – Aired Jan 19, 2019. 

Beluga whales use “acoustic name tags” to identify themselves within pods, research says. The Globe and Mail. Feb 3, 2019.  

Do Beluga Whales Use ‘Acoustic Name Tags’ for Identification? Global News, Aired February 5, 2019. 

The Mystery o the Belugas.  Full-length documentary (Productions Nova Media and ZED). Aired in  March, 2018. 

La Contaminación Sonora Suma Riesgo a la Supervivencia de las Belugas. Radio Canada International. March 19, 2018.

Call of the Baby Beluga. Full-length documentary featuring some of the St Lawrence and Arctic work.  Aired in December 2016 on The Nature of Things, and in March 2017 in National Geographic channels worldwide.  

Vancouver Aquarium researcher on marine traffic and decline of belugas. Global News. Aired September 9, 2016. 

What’s killing Canada’s beluga whales? Global News. Aired September 9, 2016. 

Darkwave: Underwater Languages at the Brink of Extinction.  Episode aired on “Ideas”, CBC Radio One. Sep 28, 2016. 

The Belugas of St Lawrence: Serious Decline. Radio Canada International. Sept 09, 2016.  

Drowning in sound? The sad case of the baby beluga whales. New Scientist. Feature Story by Isabelle Groc.  May 04, 2016. 

Crying to be Heard. The Chicago Tribune. May 2016. 

The mysterious squeaks and whistles of beluga whales. BBC Earth. Story by Lesley Evans Odgen. January 2015.

Popular publications and research blogs

Vergara, V. 2020. What’s in a Name? Studying the Calls of Wild Belugas. Aquablog, Ocean Wise

Vergara, V. 2020. Quiet Oceans: Has the Covid-19 Crisis Reduced Noise in Whale Habitats? Aquablog, Ocean Wise. 

Vergara, V. 2019. Intentional Stranding Technique of Punta Norte Killer Whales: A Family Affair. Aquablog, Ocean Wise.  

Vergara, V. 2018. Mom, Can You Hear Me?” Field notes from the beluga research tower. Aquablog, Ocean Wise. 

Vergara, V. 2017. Arctic Summer: Field Notes from the Churchill River Estuary. Aquablog, Ocean Wise. 

Vergara, V. 2016. Unravelling the Mystery of Endangered Beluga Whales. Aquablog, Ocean Wise. Posted on Sep 8, 2018. 

Vergara, V. 2014-2015. Field Notes from Arctic Watch. Series of articles for The Vancouver Sun (Week 1,  Jul 18, 2014; Week 2, Jul 29, 2014; Week 3, Aug 6, 2014; Week 4,  Aug 8, 2014;  Week 1, Jul 20, 2015; Week 2, Aug 6, 2015.