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Last updated on April 18, 2014 at 21:21 EDT

Scientists Artificially Inseminate Whale

April 2, 2005

MYSTIC, Conn. (AP) — After bringing in a parade of males and watching for years as nature never took its course, scientists at Mystic Aquarium have performed what is believed to be the first artificial insemination of a beluga whale.

Aquarium scientists, with help from their peers at Sea World, artificially inseminated Kela, a 24-year-old beluga, on Thursday morning.

After giving the whale hormones to induce the release of an egg into the reproductive tract, workers used a crane to lift Kela out of the water and place her on a mat. Frozen sperm from a Sea World beluga was then inserted. The process took only a few minutes.

Scientists plan to use ultrasound and blood tests over the next few days to monitor the 1,156-pound whale with the hope that the procedure worked. Beluga whales have been born in captivity, but never through artificial insemination.

Kela would deliver a calf in about 14 months if the procedure was successful, but scientists believe there is only a slim chance of that happening.

That is because little is known about beluga reproduction, said Todd Robeck, a veterinarian and reproductive physiologist from Sea World in San Antonio, Texas.

“We don’t know whether it will work or won’t work, but things went well,” he told The Day of New London, moments after placing thawed sperm inside Kela with an endoscope.

Tracy Romano, the aquarium’s director of research and veterinary services, said the birth of a new beluga may not happen because many things can go wrong.

“It’s mostly a learning experience and to get information for the future,” she said.

There are about 30 belugas in captivity. Aquariums and water parks across the country want to increase that number.

Because it is difficult to get permits to capture wild belugas, the focus has shifted to trying to breed them in captivity. This has meant moving whales from one location to another, which can be stressful for them.

Scientists say it would be better to inseminate whales with sperm that can be shipped around the country. They say the work will help them learn about how wild belugas breed and how to better protect them.

Robeck has been successful in attempts to artificially inseminate killer whales and dolphins. He and other scientists spent the past three years doing research in preparation for Thursday’s procedure.

Kela and Naku, the aquarium’s female belugas, were not ideal candidates for the procedure because neither had ever been pregnant and because of their advanced age, Robeck said. However, they are extremely well trained, which made the procedure easier.

“There is just an incredible amount of variables involved in this,” said Gerard Burrow, president and chief executive officer of the aquarium. “But it’s really important for us to understand the reproduction of these animals.”