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Birds With a Taste for Flesh Threaten Whale Calves

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Thousands of colossal southern right whales travel to the calm waters of Península Valdés off the coast of Argentina each year to breed and give birth. The cetaceans, which can reach 56 feet in length, are a sight to behold, especially with their calves in tow. But if you venture out to see them, you may sometimes find your stomach turning for a reason that has nothing to do with sea sickness.

For the past 50 years, the kelp gulls of Peninsula Valdés have been mercilessly pecking at any southern right whale that dares to swim to the surface to breathe. The birds gorge on skin and blubber ripped from the whales’ backs. Over the past few decades the problem has escalated, and is now so severe that it’s causing young southern right whale calves to die prematurely, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Biology Letters.

While kelp gulls and other seabirds have been known to occasionally pilfer flesh (and even eyeballs) from marine mammals, the study found that the number of southern right whale calves dying before their first birthday has increased in recent…

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