'Marine mammals occupy a very special place in people's psyche'

January 27, 2006

Ian Boyd, professor at St Andrews University's Sea Mammal Research Unit, on our fascinating friends

The excitement over a bottlenose whale's sojourn in the River Thames last week sank into disappointment with her death. But her legacy could be to boost marine biology applications, according to the director of the largest university marine mammal research group in the world.

"It's possible we may see a big upsurge," said Ian Boyd of St Andrews University's Sea Mammal Research Unit. "At undergraduate level, it may make people more aware of big mammals and the possibility of studying them."

St Andrews' undergraduate applications have already been rising in recent years. Professor Boyd believes an interest in whales predates the Thames tale. "Marine mammals occupy a special place in people's psyche. It's partly the mystery of their hidden world. They're so big and appear to have social structures possibly equal in complexity to some primates, which people find fascinating."

The SMRU has about 50 staff and 20 PhD students. It is about to advertise a new MRes course in marine mammal science, and this week it won £380,000 from the Government's public sector research exploitation initiative to cover a "full spectrum of research, right from the very esoteric to the very applied".

The SMRU investigates, for example, how diving animals cope with high pressures, and it has developed its own monitoring instruments. It is carrying out a risk assessment study for the Royal Navy to help vessels avoid damaging marine wildlife when using sonar.

Countering speculation elsewhere, Professor Boyd said he believed it was unlikely that sonar in use in the area would have have been the kind that would have affected the Thames bottlenose. "These animals strand for all sorts of reasons. We mustn't assume it was induced by human activity."

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