Feces DNA analyses track the rehabilitation of a free-ranging beluga whale

Following the sudden appearance, and subsequent efforts to support the survival of a beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) speculated to have been previously trained off the coast of Norway, we investigate the animal’s ability to readapt to life in the wild. Dietary DNA (dDNA) analysis was used to assess diet throughout this rehabilitation process, and during a return to unassisted foraging and self-feeding. Metabarcoding of feces collected throughout this process, confirmed the diversification of the beluga whale’s diet to local prey. These findings are indicative of improved foraging behavior, and the ability of this individual to resume wild foraging following a period of dependency in managed care. New insight of digestion rates, and the time window during which prey detection through dDNA analysis is appropriate was also obtained. Beyond the case study presented here, we demonstrate the power of dDNA analysis as a non-intrusive tool to assess the diet of large mammals and track progress adapting to life in the wild following release from captivity and rehabilitation programs.

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Günther Babett, Jourdain Eve, Rubincam Lindsay, Karoliussen Richard, Cox Sam L., Arnaud Haond Sophie (2022). Feces DNA analyses track the rehabilitation of a free-ranging beluga whale. Scientific Reports. 12 (1). 6412 (7p.). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-09285-8, https://archimer.ifremer.fr/doc/00766/87811/

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