Science Seminar Explores the Taxonomy of Whales

Science Seminar Explores the Taxonomy of Whales

Science Seminar Explores the Taxonomy of Whales
Dr. Matthew Leslie (center) with Dr. Ilya Tëmkin, Science Seminar Committee chair (left) and Dr. Mary Vander Maten, acting dean of the Annandale Campus Math, Science and Engineering Division (right).

Dr. Matthew S. Leslie, the G. Wayne Clough Postdoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation Genomics, was invited by the Science Seminar Committee of the Math, Science and Engineering (MSE) Division and the Lyceum Committee of the Annandale Campus to present at a Science Seminar on September 29.

With the title “Integrating DNA, Drones and Fossils to Clarify Relationships Among Rorqual Whales,” Leslie reported on his work resolving the evolutionary relationships among the largest group of baleen whales, known as rorqual whales. This family of marine mammals includes what is believed to be the largest animal that has ever lived, the blue whale – which weighs as much as 200 tons – as well as whales of less than 10 tons.

Science Seminar Explores the Taxonomy of Whales
Students surround Dr. Matthew Leslie to ask questions following his presentation.

Using a combination of traditional taxonomy utilizing the extensive collection of preserved specimens of the Smithsonian Institution with cutting-edge research techniques, such as DNA sequencing of ultra-conserved elements to establish molecular systematics and the use of drones to test subspecific relationships, Leslie and other researchers are working to determine the true taxonomy of this whale family.

One of the practical aspects of this research is that he thinks they have discovered a new endangered species of the pygmy blue whale in the Gulf of Mexico that might have an impact on oil drilling and other activities there because of the U.S. Endangered Species Act and international compacts.

To more accurately determine the population numbers of Chilean pygmy blue whales, his research group has pioneered the use of drones to fly above the whales to follow their activities and take samples of the water that they expel to determine the microflora present.

Dr. Ilya Tëmkin, biology associate professor and Science Seminar Committee chair, introduced Leslie and was impressed by the interest of those who attended the session. “The talk gathered a full house of faculty and students,” said Tëmkin, “who showed their genuine interest by asking quite insightful questions even past the question-and-answer session.”

“This was one of the very best seminars we have ever had,” added Dr. Mary Vander Maten, acting dean of the Annandale Campus MSE Division. “The presentation was wonderful – well-crafted for our students, and super interesting.”

Among those in attendance was Annandale Provost Pamela Hilbert who thanked Tëmkin for arranging a “very interesting presentation.” She added that “Dr. Leslie was very engaging in talking about whale species around the world and even close to home off the coast and Gulf of the Eastern United States.”

This was the first of three science seminars for the fall semester at Annandale. The next one, titled “Ecosystem of Innovations in Nanotechnologies for Safety, Security, and Sustainability,” will be presented by Dr. Ashok Vaseshta, vice provost for research at Claflin University, on October 27. The final fall seminar, titled “Hip Hop and Copyright: Where Art, Technology and Law Collide,” will be presented by Dr. Aram Sinnreich, associate professor at the School of Communication at American University, on November 3. Both will be in the Ernst Center Forum.

The Science Seminar series takes place throughout the year, please go online for more information.

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