World-first study to know what dwarf minke whales did last summer

Updated 18 August 2013
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World-first study to know what dwarf minke whales did last summer

Dwarf minke whales have been tagged and tracked in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in a world-first pilot study which hopes to solve the mystery of where they spend the summer.
Scientists at James Cook University in Queensland state are taking part in the project, also involving researchers from Alaska, which tagged four of the whales last month and is now tracking their southerly progress down the east coast of Australia.
“Although they occur all around the southern hemisphere, the Great Barrier Reef hosts the world’s only known predictable aggregation of these exquisitely beautiful little whales,” the university’s Alastair Birtles said.
Birtles, who has been studying the dwarf minke for 18 years, said while the animals were known to gather each winter off Lizard Island in northern Queensland, it was a mystery where they spent the summer months.
Little is known about the dwarf minkes, which are usually between five to seven meters long. Although there are several hundred on the Great Barrier Reef, they went unnoticed there until the 1980s.
Whales such as the humpback and southern right are known to migrate down Australia’s east coast in the warmer months to spend the summer in the cooler waters off Antarctica, but whether the smaller dwarf minkes join them is unknown.
“We have no idea where they go,” Birtles, co-leader of the James Cook University-based Minke Whale Project, told AFP.
“The question is: do they make that long migration down to the Antarctic waters or do they go out into the South Pacific somewhere? I really would just about put equal money on those.”
Because they are open ocean whales, the dwarf minkes are near impossible to study outside the small time frame they spend on the Great Barrier Reef in mid-winter when courtship behavior is seen.
“They are an undescribed sub species of whale... nobody knew that they existed until about 20 years ago,” Birtles said.
“It’s one of the great mysteries of the Southern Ocean to think that there is an animal here, which first of all doesn’t have a proper (scientific) name, and then you don’t know where it goes for nine months of the year. It is pretty extraordinary. Especially when it weighs five or six tons and is six meters long.”
The four whales had matchbox-sized tags placed on their dorsal fins in mid-July by researchers working from a sonically and infra-sonically quiet ship used by the Australian Defense Department.
By Aug. 12, the first whale to be tagged, a young male called Spot, had left the reef far behind and was speeding south along the edge of the continental shelf off Sydney, having swum almost 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles) in less than 30 days.
A female whale dubbed Deep Scars was not far behind, but the remaining two — while heading south — were much further north.
“Their tracks have transformed our understanding of the movements of these animals which up to this point we had only documented by divers re-sighting them and taking underwater photographs of their unique color patterns, which we use to identify individual animals,” said Birtles.
The researchers are hoping to do a more extensive study next year.


Japan to trial ‘world’s first urine test’ to spot cancer

Updated 17 April 2018
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Japan to trial ‘world’s first urine test’ to spot cancer

  • Previous research has shown a new blood test has potential to detect eight different kinds of tumors before they spread
  • The research starts in April and will run until September

TOKYO: A Japanese firm is poised to carry out what it hailed as the world’s first experiment to test for cancer using urine samples, which would greatly facilitate screening for the deadly disease.
Engineering and IT conglomerate Hitachi developed the basic technology to detect breast or colon cancer from urine samples two years ago.
It will now begin testing the method using some 250 urine samples, to see if samples at room temperature are suitable for analysis, Hitachi spokesman Chiharu Odaira told AFP.
“If this method is put to practical use, it will be a lot easier for people to get a cancer test, as there will be no need to go to a medical organization for a blood test,” he said.
It is also intended to be used to detect paediatric cancers.
“That will be especially beneficial in testing for small children” who are often afraid of needles, added Odaira.
Research published earlier this year demonstrated that a new blood test has shown promise toward detecting eight different kinds of tumors before they spread elsewhere in the body.
Usual diagnostic methods for breast cancer consist of a mammogram followed by a biopsy if a risk is detected.
For colon cancer, screening is generally conducted via a stool test and a colonoscopy for patients at high risk.
The Hitachi technology centers around detecting waste materials inside urine samples that act as a “biomarker” — a naturally occurring substance by which a particular disease can be identified, the company said in a statement.
The procedure aims to improve the early detection of cancer, saving lives and reducing the medical and social cost to the country, Odaira explained.
The experiment will start this month until through September in cooperation with Nagoya University in central Japan.
“We aim to put the technology in use in the 2020s, although this depends on various things such as getting approval from the authorities,” Odaira said.