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On the tail of the humpback whale

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While a book featuring a thousand photographs of whale tails may never be a best seller, researchers in this field say it has become a valuable scientific tool. It has added the personal touch to marine mammal study - allowing scientists to identify individual humpback whales by distinctive markings on their flukes, or tails, and thus track their movements around the Atlantic.

Using ''Humpback Whales: A Catalogue of Individuals Identified by Fluke Photographs,'' researchers are getting a better understanding of that species.

So far they have:

* Found that North Atlantic humpbacks seem to be divided into distinct ''stocks,'' each with its own breeding and feeding grounds.

* Discovered that the fluke patterns of the whales can change over time, but usually not enough to hinder identification.

* Identified an estimated one-third of the humpbacks in the North Atlantic.

This information will be valuable to scientists working to protect humpbacks, which are threatened by offshore development and pollution.

Even before Melville's tale of ''Moby Dick,'' the great white sperm whale, whalers and researchers had noticed that they could identify individual whales by distinctive markings. Not until 1975, however, did scientists make significant use of the markings for research purposes.

The effort is led by Allied Whale, a loosely knit organization of specialists and amateur researchers, which scientists call a model of scientific cooperation. The group, based at the College of the Atlantic (COA) in Bar Harbor , Maine, is led by Prof. Steven Katona.

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