20 October 2023

DNA and discoveries: New research reveals a fresh chapter in story of life under the sea

| Claire Sams
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A woman in gloves and a mask using a hand-held drill on a whale skeleton

Isabelle Reeves and her team have unlocked secrets from one of the South Coast’s best-known skeletons. Photo: Charlie White.

In the 19th century, a group of killer whales would make regular visits to Eden on the NSW South Coast.

Old Tom led the group, which hunted baleen whales alongside humans and were rewarded with tongues of the killed animals for their hard work.

In 2023, the results of a recent study into the genetic history of one of the South Coast’s best-known (marine) residents have been published.

PhD candidate at Flinders University and Cetacean Research Centre Isabella Reeves said simply starting the study left her with bated breath.

“The tooth is where you normally get the most DNA, but we thought to give the jaw a go as well,” she said.

“I drilled a gram in eight hours.

“I sent Old Tom to Norway, and I then followed.”

To see what secrets Old Tom’s skeleton held, Ms Reeves worked with Professor Andrew Foote, a leading killer whale geneticist.

When Old Tom’s DNA was compared with whale populations from around the world, it was found he had a most recent common ancestor with North Atlantic, North Pacific and Australasian killer whales.

“This is thousands of years ago, if not 10,000 years ago,” she said.

“We were most interested in the question of who he relates to today.

“He has some similarity with modern New Zealand killer whales, but he was still quite different to them – he was just the most similar to them.”

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The results also confirmed Old Tom was a male whale.

“That [his sex] was always up in the air because of his active role in the hunt,” she said.

“Some records suggest he lived a really long time, and we wouldn’t expect that of a male killer whale.”

But Old Tom’s genes indicate that the tale of the Twofold Bay whale group had a sad ending.

“The fact he was so different, with DNA that wasn’t shared with killer whales anywhere else in the world, suggests that his lineage are likely extinct,” Ms Reeves said.

The published paper included a foreword from Steven Holmes, a Thaua Traditional Custodian.

Ms Reeves said it was key that the Thaua people were recognised as key participants in the story of the whales in Twofold Bay.

“We’re never going to know all of it – a lot of that knowledge has been lost due to what’s happened in Australia over the past couple of hundred years,” she said.

“But I wanted to make sure that when it was broadcasted, it was the most accurate version of the story we could provide.”

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The reciprocal relationship between killer whales and the whalers was a unique one, Ms Reeves said.

“I just wanted to help to add to Eden’s history and help them understand how important that relationship was in the scheme of the world.

“Nothing has been recorded like that – to that extent – anywhere else in the world.”

Ms Reeves said South Coast residents, especially those in Eden, were happy their local history was being brought to a new audience.

“I’m glad it’s got the response it has,” she said.

“I hope it gives the town more recognition from around the world.

“I’ve even had [academic] colleagues message me and say they didn’t know anything about the story until now!”

The study was published in October 2023 in Journal of Heredity and is available online.

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Thanks for the oft repeated generalisations Stu. What about a specific example?

Does our international obligation to protect our biodiversity extend to our parks and reserve system? The NSW NP&WS “Zero extinctions – national parks as a stronghold for threatened species recovery” September 2021 report states “There is evidence that the overall decline in biodiversity in NSW is occurring even in the national park estate.

The NSW parks and reserves system has about 80 percent of the public forest estate available for conservation reservation.

A south east NSW example of a critically endangered species is the Imlay Mallee (Eucalyptus imlayensis). Mt Imlay National Park was dedicated in 1972 and the Imlay Mallee was discovered in 1977.

The October 1998 Mt Imlay NP Management Plan noted the rare, endemic species E. imlayensis occurs in a stand of less than 200 trees.

In 2008. The NSW Scientific Committee reported the species comprised 70 plants, when it was discovered in 1977. In 2007, many plants were reported to be in poor health, with 4 plants having died in about 2000 and another two deaths in 2002.

Prior to the bushfire, the mature trees were in generally poor health and setting little or no seed. The population had declined by 10 percent over 10 years up to 2011.

The Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment March 2022 consultation on species listing notes no seedling or juveniles have ever been observed on Mount Imlay since the species came to the attention of science in 1977.

Latest publicly available information is that there are 48 mature Imlay Mallee down from an estimated 70 mature plants before the 2019-20 fire season.

Well done for keeping the conservation spotlight on State Forests, while we are left to assume everything is sweet as in our national parks.

Philip in Narooma11:06 am 23 Oct 23

The issue with Stu’s post is it contains biased misinformation. A few facts may be in order.
NSW Forestry corporation did make an operating loss in the 20/21 and 21/22 financial years within the hardwood forest sector However it was driven by Covid and bushfires. In the three previous years NSW Forestry DID make a profit within the hardwood forest sector.

Overall a small profit was earnt from all their divisions.

As well NSW Forestry looks after the roads, infrastructure and provision of rehabilitation to forests after fire and logging operations within 1.8million hectares of NSW State forests (excluding 225,000 hect. of pine and 35,000hect of hardwood plantation). This cost NSW Forestry about $14/hectare over two years. Which was recouped from overall earnings. In most years the NSW Government pays NO funds to NSW Forestry corp.

As well, the business of logging and the consequent provision of hardwood for sawn logs as well as chip earns south east NSW about $60million per year. If the timber industry closes in NSW then towns like Eden and Bombala will be severely affected. But this matters nought to the extreme green community who care nothing about the community and mouth platitudes like ‘a just transition away from the timber industry ..’ without even knowing what that means.

Of course let’s not forget that NSW National Parks and Wildlife service budget is granted about $550 million PER YEAR from the public purse to meet similar operating costs to manage national parks. This equates to $72/hectare to manage 7million hectares of NSW national parks.

The SE NSW timber industry has been functioning for over 150 years. The science degree in forestry from ANU is regarded as world leading, instead all we hear about is from one small sector of ‘ecology’ scientists with an agenda. Rarely, if ever, from the forestry scientists – it would be nice to.

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