Library digitizes 50 years of Patagonia research


Each spring, southern right whales congregate off the coast of Patagonia, Argentina. In the protected bays created by PenínsulaValdés, females calve and raise their young during their first three months of life.

Throughout their 60-plus years of life, the females return to this spot about once every three years. Distinct growths on their head called callosities allow researchers to visually identify individual whales and collect data on them over their lifetime.

In 1971, Victoria Rowntree, now a University of Utah biology research professor, joined head researcher Roger Payne on a trip to his newly discovered research site in South America. “I had previously worked for Roger at Rockefeller University and when he and his family went to Argentina for a year, he said ‘hey Vick, you should come down here—it’s incredible,’” Rowntree said. “And so I did. I’ve been working on identifying and following the lives of individual right whales ever since.”

Marriott Library

At that time, most of what was known about large whales had been gained from the whalers that harvested them. As a behaviorist, Payne wanted to observe the whales over their lives and learn about things such as how often they calved and how they interacted with their environment and each other. He realized that the unique patterns of callosities on their heads provided a way to identify them as individuals throughout their lives.

When the Patagonia right whale project began, Payne and his team used a small plane to aerially document the whales with film photography. Initially, this film was developed in a dark room set up at the research camp. A head catalog was created that organized known whales by the number, shape and placement of their markings, to make it easier to determine whether a whale had been previously identified. By the early ’80s, hundreds of individual whales were known and the sheer number of images was becoming unwieldy.

Technological innovations continually changed the work. For example, when digital photography became available, the researchers shifted to that method of documentation in 2005. In the late 1990s, the project switched from researchers having to physically match the whales with those in the head catalog to using a computerized system that suggested likely matches. Creating the digital catalog required only a few of the best images of each known whale, which meant the vast majority of the data collected before 2005 only existed as physical slides.

To read the full story about how Rowntree's research is being digitized by the Marriott Library, read the article by Mattie Mortensen.