Post-Doctoral Research Conducted at Trent University Provides First Genetic Confirmation of Adoption in Wild Marine Mammals


Dr. Timothy Frasier’s research leads to discovery of two
North Atlantic Right Whale calves switched at birth

Friday, April 30, 2010, Peterborough

Research conducted by Dr. Timothy Frasier during his time as a post-doctoral fellow at Trent University, and in collaboration with researchers at the New England Aquarium in Boston, has verified the first genetic confirmation of adoption in a wild marine mammal and is the first documented case of its kind in the North Atlantic right whale.

The study entitled “Reciprocal Exchange and Subsequent Adoption of Calves by Two North Atlantic Right Whales (Eubalaena glacialis),” and recently published in Aquatic Mammals, explains how, during a project to create a right whale family tree by linking right whale DNA data with the New England Aquarium Right Whale Catalog’s long-term photo-identification data, the genetic profiles of two mothers were found to mismatch their calves. After a thorough investigation to eliminate the possibility of error, the researchers confidently believe that this is indeed a case of North Atlantic right whales switched at birth, also known as a confirmed case of a double adoption.

“This swap was likely an accident caused by the females calving in close spatial and temporal proximity,” explained Dr. Frasier, who is currently an adjunct professor in the Biology Department at Trent University and a faculty member at Saint Mary’s University. “The calves likely associated with the wrong mothers before any mother-off­spring recognition system had developed, and an association then formed between these non-bio­logical mother-offspring pairs. These data raise intriguing questions regarding how often this may occur in other wildlife populations, what mecha­nisms are used for mother-offspring recognition in whales, and how long it takes for this recognition to develop.”

Research for the study was conducted by Dr. Frasier in the Natural Resources DNA Profiling & Forensic Centre (NRDPFC) labs in Trent’s state-of-the-art DNA Building.

In describing the important role the facilities at Trent played in his research, Dr. Frasier said: “This species is critically endangered and also has extremely low levels of genetic diversity. In order to conduct this work we had to screen and analyze each sample at a very large number of molecular markers. To do this in an efficient and cost-effective manner requires the latest technology and equipment available for genetic work. Trent University’s laboratory is one of the most advanced genetic labs in Canada, and therefore had the resources required to make this project successful and efficient.”

“Trent hosts the DNA database for this endangered species,” said Dr. Bradley White, chair of the Biology Department and leader of the right whale genetic project since its beginning in 1988. “We have about 70 per cent of the entire species as DNA samples held at Trent. This resource is absolutely priceless and allows us to track family trees like the adoption case. I think the DNA bank may be the most valuable part of Trent University from a world significance point of view.”

Dr. Frasier was drawn to Trent for his post-doctoral position to work with Dr. White. “My post-doctoral work with Dr. White while at Trent involved developing all of the molecular techniques needed to genetically analyze this species, and then apply those data to building the family tree,” Dr. Frasier said. “We are now using this information to better understand the reproductive biology of this species, as well as to assess the potential role that genetic factors could be having on species recovery.”

During his time at Trent working alongside Dr. White, Dr. Frasier also studied the genetics of the Indo Pacific humpback dolphins found along the western coast of Taiwan. The work resulted in the dolphins being recognized as a critically endangered population by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). He was a member of a research team led by Dr. White that travelled to the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium in southern Taiwan to present critical DNA research in the second International Symposium and Workshop on the Conservation and Research Needs of the Indo- Pacific Dolphins, held in September 2007. In May 2010, Dr. Frasier will lead the Trent Mammal Course, Dolphin and Whale Biology and Conservation in Tropical Asia in Taiwan next month. Through this course, 19 Ontario students will earn credit conducting field work that investigates conservation issues facing marine mammals in Asia and throughout the world.


For more information, please contact:
Dr. Timothy Frasier, Adjunct Professor, Trent University, (902) 491-6382 or; or
Dr. Bradley White, Chair, Biology Department, Trent University, (705) 748-1011 x7133