Finnwhale near Azores

Detailed knowledge about whales in European waters will be provided by the Biodiversa+ project "eWHALE". 

Detec­tive work at sea: whale research via envi­ron­men­tal DNA

Detailed knowledge about whales in European waters will be provided by the Biodiversa+ project "eWHALE", which started in January and is led by molecular ecologist Bettina Thalinger from the University of Innsbruck. The transnational research project brings together partners from science, industry and the public to establish a far-reaching, non-invasive cetacean and biodiversity monitoring system using water samples.

To effectively protect whales and other endangered marine species, it is necessary to emphasize conservation measures for entire marine areas. This is one of the aims of the European Union's Biodiversity Strategy 2030. However, particularly relevant areas for the recovery and conservation of biodiversity, can only be identified if sufficient data are available: Researchers from Austria, Portugal, France, Italy, Ireland, Norway and Iceland together with business partners and interested citizens will contribute to this endeavor in the project "eWHALE". Bettina Thalinger, PhD, from the Institute of Zoology at the University of Innsbruck is leading the research project, which will run from January 2023 to the end of 2025 and is funded under the Biodiversa+ initiative, to provide new knowledge about marine biodiversity.

"For some cetacean species, individuals cannot be distinguished from one another based on external characteristics. Tissue samples from whales are difficult to obtain and are therefore, not ideal for extensive monitoring," says Bettina Thalinger, explaining important reasons for gaps in the data available on European whale populations. A very promising method to identify species, family groups, their diet, and possibly even single individuals is the analysis of the eDNA (environmental DNA) contained in water samples via molecular methods. Besides the eDNA expertise of the "Applied Animal Ecology Research Unit" at the University of Innsbruck, the French (National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment), Norwegian (Institute of Marine Research) and Irish (University College Cork) partners also bring years of experience working with eDNA to the table. The consortium is completed by partner institutions in Portugal (Universidade dos Açores), Iceland (University of Iceland) and Italy (Politecnico di Milano) which not only focus on whale research, but also include the citizen science aspect in many of their projects.

Adding whale watchers into the equation

A significant aspect of eWHALE is the involvement of people who have booked a whale-watching tour. "Sampling is easy and will be done during the whale watching tours. Together with the participating tour providers, we want to bring in the citizen science aspect," Thalinger explains. These are combined with eDNA samples collected during routine research cruises carried out by Norway and France (National Institute for Ocean Science). In this way, a high number of samples will be taken over a large spatial distance from the Azores up to Iceland and more awareness will be created for the protection of marine habitats. "The eWHALE project is a wonderful extension of the educational aspect, which is an important part of our tours and programs. It brings participants into direct contact with new technologies," emphasizes Enrico Villa from CW Azores on behalf of the whale watching providers involved. "The first sampling on the boats will start this spring with consecutive laboratory analyses scheduled to start in autumn. We will then use the initial results to develop a monitoring strategy for 2024," says Thalinger, explaining the next milestones. "Our dream is to eventually be able to track individuals via their eDNA."

Commitment to species conservation

With its Biodiversity Strategy 2030, the European Union aims to ensure the protection and recovery of Europe’s biodiversity. Among other things, this is to be achieved by converting at least 30 percent of Europe's terrestrial and marine areas into effectively managed protected areas by 2030. “By analyzing the water samples, we not only gain information about whales, but also about other relevant and endangered species," Bettina Thalinger emphasizes. Hence, results generated in eWHALE add to the decision-making basis for the implementation of the biodiversity strategy.

Biodiversa+ is a funding initiative of the European Commission that has been running since October 1, 2021. As part of the European Union's Biodiversity Strategy 2030, Biodiversa+ aims to bridge the gap between science, policy and practice and provide insights for its planning and implementation. Funding is provided for excellent research projects in which several partner institutions from research and industry work together across countries.

"eWHALE" is a BioDiversa+ project funded by:

Austrian Science Fund (FWF), Austria, Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR), France, Environmental Protection Agency, Ireland, Ministry of Universities and Research – MUR, Italy, Fundo Regional para a Ciência e Tecnologia (FRCT), Portugal, The Research Council of Norway (RCN), Norway, Rannís (Rannsóknamiðstöð Íslands), Iceland

Participating institutions

• University of Innsbruck, Department of Zoology (Austria)
• Sinsoma GmbH, Völs (Austria)
• Universidade dos Açores, Ocean Sciences Institute – Okeanos, Horta (Portugal)
• Cetacean Watching Lda, Madalena do Pico (Portugal)
• Institute of Marine Research, Tromsø (Norway)
• Politecnico di Milano, Department of Environmental and Civil Engineering (Italy)
• University College Cork, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (Ireland)
• Whale Watch West Cork, Unionhall (Ireland)
• University of Iceland, University of Iceland's research center, Húsavík (Iceland)
• North Sailing, Húsavík, (Iceland)
• French Research Institute for the Exploitation of the Sea, joint research unit Dynamics and sustainability of ecosystems: from the source to the ocean (DECOD) Nantes (France)
• National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment, Decode Unit Research Ecosystem Dynamics and Sustainability, Rennes (France)

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