World’s largest whales are mostly ‘right-handed’, study finds

In this Nov. 13, 2017, file photo, rescuers attempt to push stranded whales back into the ocean at Ujong Kareng beach in Aceh province, Indonesia. An official said whales were stranded at the beach and attracted hundreds of onlookers who posed for pictures with them. (AP Photo/Syahrol Rizal, File)
Updated 20 November 2017

World’s largest whales are mostly ‘right-handed’, study finds

MIAMI, USA: Blue whales, the world’s largest animals, usually favor their right side when they lunge to catch food — a preference similar to right-handedness in people, researchers said Monday.
But on certain occasions while moving upward in shallow water, these righties will almost always shift to their left to keep a good eye on their favored prey — tiny crustaceans known as krill.
The reason for this situation-specific choice is likely simple: to get as much food in their mouths as possible, said the report published in Current Biology.
“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first example where animals show different lateralized behaviors depending on the context of the task that is being performed,” said co-author James Herbert-Read of Stockholm University in Sweden.
The report was based on analysis of the movement of 63 blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) off the coast of California.
These giant creatures are almost as long as three school buses and weigh as much as 25 elephants.
Scientists analyzed more than 2,800 feeding plunges, in which whales make sharp turns or rolls when passing a patch of krill, in order to eat as many as possible.
Most blue whales veer right in deep water, where it is dark and there are a lot of krill, so visual contact is not as important.
But when the water is between 10 and 100 feet (three to 30 meters), most prefer to roll left at a steep angle.
Researchers think this happens because prey tend to be less plentiful at shallow depth, and moving left allows whales to keep their right eye on their target.
“These are the largest animals on the planet and feeding is an extraordinarily costly behavior that takes time, so being able to maximize the benefit of each feeding opportunity is critical,” said lead author Ari Friedlaender, a cetacean expert with the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University.
“And we believe this left-sided rotation is a mechanism to help achieve that,” he added.
“If the whales turned to the right on approach, they would lose sight of their prey and decrease the ability to forage successfully. By rolling to the left, the whales may be maintaining this visual connection to their prey.”
Researchers say that lefties are unusual in the animal kingdom.
Scientists hope to study more whales to see if other species also exhibit a preference for left turns in some contexts.
“We were completely surprised by these findings, but when considering the means by which the whales attack smaller prey patches, the behavior really seems to be effective, efficient, and in line with the mechanisms that drive their routine foraging behaviors,” Friedlaender said.


Saudi women researchers win major science award

Altalhi’s research in donor-less organ transplants is designed to counter end-stage organ failure, a leading cause of death worldwide. (supplied)
Updated 12 November 2019

Saudi women researchers win major science award

  • Each of the researchers was awarded a grant in recognition of their outstanding achievements
  • According to the Saudi Cancer Registry, leukaemia is the fifth most common cancer among both men and women

DUBAI: A passion for science and years of hard work has put two Saudi women researchers in the spotlight following their groundbreaking studies on organ transplant alternatives and stem cell treatments. 

Wafa Audeh Altalhi and Asma Al-Amoodi were among the six female scientists honored at the sixth edition of the L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Middle East Fellowship awards in Dubai.

Each of the researchers was awarded a grant in recognition of their outstanding achievements. Altalhi received €20,000 ($22,000) in the postdoctorate researchers category, while Al-Amoodi received €8,000 in the PhD students category.

The 21-year-old initiative empowers women in science and highlight the value of their achievements, while promoting gender equality. So far the program has supported more than 3,100 women and rewarded 107 laureates, granting doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships in 117 countries.

Altalhi’s research in donor-less organ transplants is designed to counter end-stage organ failure, a leading cause of death worldwide.  

“The transplant waiting list has been increasing in recent years, putting immense pressure on patients in terms of hospital expenses. My research uses a patient’s own stem cells to build replacing organs as an alternative to allogenic organ transplants,” she said.

Altalhi’s focus is on bioengineering patient-specific and donor-less organs by making specialized tissue and organs ready for transplant when needed.

“Awards like this provide a platform where candidates and their contributions are examined by experts. I believe that this is important to promote healthy competence in the scientific field and push innovation forward,” Altalhi said.

Before becoming a science laureate, Altalhi attended Umm Al-Qura University, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in laboratory medicine.

She went on to complete a master’s degree in cellular and molecular medicine, followed by a PhD in laboratory medicine and pathobiology at the University of Ottawa and Toronto in Canada.

“I am now doing my postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University and the Center for Organ Bioengineering at Massachusetts general hospital,” she said.

Meanwhile, furthering research in stem cell treatments for cancer patients is Al-Amoodi’s top priority.

She is convinced that more can be done to treat hematological diseases through stem cell research.

According to the Saudi Cancer Registry, leukaemia is the fifth most common cancer among both men and women.

With limited therapy options and a high number of patients in the Kingdom, Al-Amoodi is determined to improve the efficiency of bone marrow transplants through her research.

“This award is about overcoming all limitations and challenges I have faced. The award has turned my dream to do something for our society into reality,” she said.

Al-Amoodi has a bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory technology and a master’s degree in biology. She plans to pursue her PhD studies in stem cell adhesion mechanism.