Australian Antarctic Division molecular ecologist Dr Simon Jarman has been awarded a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to research DNA-based methods for ageing humpback whales.

Dr Jarman’s research involves taking small skin samples from whales and looking at changes in the DNA to provide an age estimate for the whale.

The scholarship will enable Dr Jarman to work with humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine in the United States to refine the DNA method and improve understanding of whale ecology.

“The population of humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine contains a large number of whales of known age, which were visually observed when they were less than one year old and re-sighted in later years,” said Dr Jarman.

“Skin biopsy samples from these known-age whales are essential for calibrating DNA-based methods for age estimation.”

In congratulating Dr Jarman on his award, Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, said the scholarship is testament to the leading role of Australian scientists in the non-lethal research of marine mammals.

“With only 4800 scholarships awarded in Australia, it’s great recognition of the value of this very specialised strand of science around the world.”

The processes driving ageing at the molecular level have become far better understood in the last few years.

“Recent research has uncovered a genetic process for making animals physically age, similar to the process that makes them develop into adults from an embryo,” Dr Jarman said

“The DNA changes that we are measuring in the whales are part of this program for ageing.”

Dr Jarman’s work could also be extended to age estimation in other animal species.

“We intend to develop similar genetic age estimation methods for other long-lived wild animals such as albatross and penguins and to use the age information for population status monitoring,” he said.

Dr Jarman’s previous research has included the study of animals’ diets, including penguins, Antarctic krill, seals and whales, using the DNA found in their stomach contents and scats.

The Fulbright Program is the largest and one of the most prestigious educational scholarship programs in the world, operating in the United States and over 155 countries worldwide.