Russian-Ukrainian war drives dolphins to extinction in Black Sea

The war in Ukraine has led to a dramatic increase in the number of dolphin and porpoise deaths due to military operations in the Black Sea, according to a “harrowing” study.

The study, which was published in the journal of the Royal Society Biology Lettersshowed that tens of thousands of cetaceans died in the region, a marginal sea in the Mediterranean, surrounded by Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.

As a result, the study’s lead author warned that these animals could be wiped out in the area.

War has always claimed millions of silent, non-human victims. But the scale of this suffering is often difficult to quantify and usually overshadowed by human tragedy. The latest study is a stark demonstration that humans are not the only victims of the ongoing conflict.

A dead dolphin in the Black Sea
A dead dolphin washed up on the shores of the Black Sea. The war in Ukraine has led to a dramatic increase in dolphin and porpoise mortality due to military operations in the Black Sea.
Ivan Rusev

“We wanted to highlight the fact that wild animals are not immune to the devastating effects of war, often enduring great suffering and death,” said Ewa Węgrzyn, author of the study at the University. from Rzeszow, Poland. Newsweek. “The scale of animal suffering during a war is enormous, but usually the facts are unknown for several reasons.”

“First, the fate of other creatures is often overshadowed by the human toll,” she said. “Secondly, conducting scientific research during war is extremely difficult. And thirdly, even in peacetime it is difficult to monitor the mortality of certain species, so it is even more difficult to know what happens to them in time of war.”

The mortality of cetaceans – a family of marine mammals that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises – resulting from warfare has not been studied to date, according to Węgrzyn.

“The only available records come from surveys of relatively short-term military exercises, which have proven to be a deadly threat to many cetacean species,” Węgrzyn said.

“One of the co-authors of our article, Ivan Rusev, lives and conducts research on the Black Sea coast as a scientific staff [member] of Tuzlivsky Limany National Nature Park. After the outbreak of war, he noticed an increase in the number of dead dolphins washed up on shore. He also received similar reports from other countries surrounding the Black Sea.”

Węgrzyn said the reports were “particularly worrying” because all three cetacean species found in the Black Sea – the harbor porpoise, short-beaked common dolphin and common bottlenose dolphin – are listed on the International Union’s Red List. for nature conservation. Threatened species.

An injured harbor porpoise
A harbor porpoise that was probably injured by an explosion. Harbor porpoises are one of three cetacean species found in the Black Sea.
Ivan Rusev

“So, we decided to conduct scientific research to find out how war affects cetaceans and what the magnitude of the threat is,” Węgrzyn said.

For the study, the researchers combined a citizen science approach that used social media with more traditional methods. Citizen science is a useful tool for collecting a large set of data on the vast area of ​​the Black Sea, according to Węgrzyn.

Citizen science projects typically involve initiatives in which a group of non-scientific volunteers consciously participate by collecting and submitting data to researchers, who then analyze it and interpret the results.

“We had the idea that other approaches of linking data collected by citizens and scientists could also work,” Węgrzyn said. “For example, scientists may collect information made available on the Internet by many people, who do not intentionally participate in a particular project, but share public information on social networks. A large number of people use social networks, so we thought they might be a source of information that is otherwise extremely difficult to obtain over a long period of time and from a wide area.”

“We assumed that sighting a dolphin stranding is a deeply emotional event for many people, so the likelihood of eyewitnesses sharing information and/or photographs on social media platforms seemed very high.”

Additionally, social media posts often contain tags that make information more easily accessible.

“This approach has the advantage of not requiring the training of volunteers or the implementation of a complex project, which may not be possible in times of war,” Węgrzyn said.

Last year, over a period of three months (May, June and July), researchers scoured the Internet and collected citizen information on the ranking of dolphins published on social media platforms in Ukraine, as well as other Black Sea countries.

A dead porpoise
A harbor porpoise with war wounds. The researchers documented 2,500 cetacean corpses that washed up on the Black Sea coast during the three months of their investigation.
Ivan Rusev

Since the results obtained through citizen science initiatives are not always as accurate as those collected by more traditional scientific methods, the researchers also conducted a small-scale study in the Tuzlivsky Limany National Nature Park, located in the southern Ukraine.

Additionally, Węgrzyn and colleagues looked at cetacean mortality data in the region from the same months between the years 2015-2021, before Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine.

With their dual approach, the researchers documented a “significant increase” in cetacean mortality attributed to military activities in the Black Sea.

How many dolphins died during the Ukraine-Russia war?

Data collected from social media identified around 2,500 cetacean corpses that washed up on the Black Sea coast during the three months of the investigation.

Since only a small percentage of dead dolphins and porpoises are estimated to wash up on shore – the remaining carcasses sink to the bottom – the researchers determined that the 2,500 documented strandings likely accounted for the deaths of 37,500 to 48,000 creatures in just three months of war.

“That’s one-sixth to one-fifth of the population of the Black Sea, which was around 253,000 cetaceans before the war,” Węgrzyn said. “Thus, in the long term, cetaceans in the Black Sea could be threatened with extinction. For me, the results of our investigation are heartbreaking.”

To compare the results of the large-scale social media project and the small-scale scientific survey in the Tuzlivski region, the researchers calculated the number of dead cetaceans stranded per kilometer of shoreline.

The numbers they got were 0.5 and 0.7, respectively, indicating that the results of the large-scale social media survey were roughly in line with Tuzlivsky’s small-scale scientific survey. Limany.

Węgrzyn and his colleagues also compared their findings on cetacean mortality during the war with pre-war data. This revealed that cetacean mortality increased approximately 9 to 14 times depending on location. But how exactly do cetaceans die as a result of military activity?

“Dolphins and porpoises stranded during our survey had new war-related wounds on their bodies,” Węgrzyn said. “Many dolphins have died from injuries caused directly by explosions.”

Numerous mines, the naval battle of Snake Island and the shelling of the port of Odessa and its surroundings by the Russian army were the cause of constant explosions in the Black Sea.

Harbor porpoise with decompression sickness
A dead harbor porpoise with signs of decompression sickness. Explosions can bring cetaceans to the surface quickly.
Ivan Rusev

“Other people have lost their lives due to decompression sickness, as the explosions can cause cetaceans to rise rapidly to the surface,” Węgrzyn said. “Many of them also died of starvation and hypothermia – the individuals had a very thin layer of fat – because the sonar destroys their ability to navigate and hunt.”

Sonar technologies affect a part of dolphins’ brains known as the melon, a key organ involved in communication and echolocation that allows them to navigate and hunt.

“Without these activities, dolphins cannot survive,” Węgrzyn said. “Previous research on the effect of military exercises on cetaceans has shown that exposure to sonar signals leads to a large energy deficit in whales. Energy loss greater than 40% is a deadly threat to cetaceans and can result from only ten days of fasting.”

“It has been documented that sonar signals can disrupt cetacean behavior over distances of up to 90 nautical miles, suggesting that prolonged and large-scale military operations during the war may have left little room undisturbed for cetaceans in the Black Sea,” Węgrzyn said.

A considerable number of cetaceans that washed up on shore were still alive at the time, but were so badly injured that it would have been impossible to save them, according to Węgrzyn.

“It is likely that these sensitive animals suffer considerably before dying from war-inflicted wounds. Undoubtedly, they die long hours in pain,” Węgrzyn said.

“Dolphins develop self-awareness earlier in life than humans, and their intelligence rivals that of great apes, making them the second-smartest creature after humans. From this perspective, the cruelty they experience due to a military operation in the Black Sea seems close to human suffering during the war.

Despite the various ways in which war has a negative effect on wildlife, its impact seems to have received less attention from scientists than that of industrial and agricultural activities, according to Węgrzyn.

“To draw more attention to the plight of war-affected animals, it is necessary to shed light on this issue,” Węgrzyn said. “In our view, using citizen science can be a powerful approach to bringing attention to the suffering of animals in times of war.”

“The sixth mass extinction is already well underway. A deadly mix of climate change, environmental pollution and, above all, as we highlight here, human war and conflict are having a devastating impact on animals and our planet. To aid in future conservation and management efforts for these victims, it is crucial to measure and record the extent of non-human deaths caused by war.”

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