Dr. Valeria Vergara, marine mammal research scientist and expert on beluga whales

by | Sep 11, 2019

Dr. Valeria Vergara—a marine mammal research scientist with the Ocean Wise Conservation Association, who has spent much of her career studying beluga whales, with a particular emphasis on their acoustic communication—recalls gravitating toward animals during childhood, growing up in Buenos Aires, in a house populated with pets. She goes on to outline that each major step down her path of academia involved animals, studying coyotes as an undergrad, her master’s thesis looked at red foxes, and her PhD focused on belugas. She notes that all three animals are highly intelligent and highly social. Vergara describes beluga whales, noting traits that make them distinctive (beyond their stark white color), including that they are an arctic species, have no vertebrae in neck, no dorsal fin, and they’re related to the narwhal. She explains elements of beluga communication (clicks, calls, whistles, etc.)—and I incorporate recordings Vergara has made of them communicating, from chatter amongst a beluga herd to mothers’ contact calls to their calves—and notes that a significant part of her research has been examining the challenges faced by these audio-oriented mammals, as their work has become noisier and noisier. Vergara addresses another core component of her research: how beluga calves develop the sounds and calls necessary to maintain contact with their mother, amidst a larger group of belugas, whom, she makes clear, can be quite talkative. In response to my question—noting that young belugas are not white, but various shades of grey as calves and juveniles, evolving into the white hue we associate with belugas—Vergara touches on how a calf’s communication approach evolves as it becomes a juvenile, and then an adult. (https://ocean.org/stories/our-people-valeria/#cover, https://www.facebook.com/valeria.vergara.182)


ALSO: I spoke with Jarrod Edson, a 20-year-old, Pittsburgh-based artist on the autism spectrum who creates colorful, inventive, striking paintings—often of animals, which could mean a variety of wild animals, or domestic animals, like cats or dogs. In fact, he explains, it was an inquiry last year from one of his Dad’s friends about painting his pet that led to Edson venturing into animal art. He’s made up for lost time, since turning out an array of animal images that he makes available in prints, on greeting cards, and t-shirts. And still fashions commissioned, customized pet portraits like that first one he did for his Dad’s friend. Edson donates 30% of his profits to three Pittsburgh organizations, including Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team. (https://www.jarrodedson.com, https://www.instagram.com/jarrodedsonartist/)

COMEDY CORNER: Brian Regan’s “Whale Noises”  (http://brianregan.com)

MUSIC: Rebekah Pulley’s “Talking Animals Theme,” instrumentals

NAME THAT ANIMAL TUNE:  We didn’t play “Name That Animal Tune” today.


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