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Concept: Humpback whale


Almost all mammals communicate using sound, but few species produce complex songs. Two baleen whales sing complex songs that change annually, though only the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) has received much research attention. This study focuses on the other baleen whale singer, the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus). Members of the Spitsbergen bowhead whale population produced 184 different song types over a 3-year period, based on duty-cycled recordings from a site in Fram Strait in the northeast Atlantic. Distinct song types were recorded over short periods, lasting at most some months. This song diversity could be the result of population expansion, or immigration of animals from other populations that are no longer isolated from each other by heavy sea ice. However, this explanation does not account for the within season and annual shifting of song types. Other possible explanations for the extraordinary diversity in songs could be that it results either from weak selection pressure for interspecific identification or for maintenance of song characteristics or, alternatively, from strong pressure for novelty in a small population.

Concepts: Whale, Humpback whale, Whale surfacing behaviour, Baleen, Whaling, Bowhead whale


Southern Hemisphere humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) generally undertake annual migrations from polar summer feeding grounds to winter calving and nursery grounds in subtropical and tropical coastal waters. Evidence for such migrations arises from seasonality of historic whaling catches by latitude, Discovery and natural mark returns, and results of satellite tagging studies. Feeding is generally believed to be limited to the southern polar region, where Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) has been identified as the primary prey item. Non-migrations and / or suspended migrations to the polar feeding grounds have previously been reported from a summer presence of whales in the Benguela System, where feeding on euphausiids (E. lucens), hyperiid amphipods (Themisto gaudichaudii), mantis shrimp (Pterygosquilla armata capensis) and clupeid fish has been described. Three recent research cruises (in October/November 2011, October/November 2014 and October/November 2015) identified large tightly-spaced groups (20 to 200 individuals) of feeding humpback whales aggregated over at least a one-month period across a 220 nautical mile region of the southern Benguela System. Feeding behaviour was identified by lunges, strong milling and repetitive and consecutive diving behaviours, associated bird and seal feeding, defecations and the pungent “fishy” smell of whale blows. Although no dedicated prey sampling could be carried out within the tightly spaced feeding aggregations, observations of E. lucens in the region of groups and the full stomach contents of mantis shrimp from both a co-occurring predatory fish species (Thyrsites atun) and one entangled humpback whale mortality suggest these may be the primary prey items of at least some of the feeding aggregations. Reasons for this recent novel behaviour pattern remain speculative, but may relate to increasing summer humpback whale abundance in the region. These novel, predictable, inter-annual, low latitude feeding events provide considerable potential for further investigation of Southern Hemisphere humpback feeding behaviours in these relatively accessible low-latitude waters.

Concepts: Antarctica, Whale, Humpback whale, Whale surfacing behaviour, Fin whale, Whale watching, Krill, Whaling


Lifetime contaminant and hormonal profiles have been reconstructed for an individual male blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus, Linnaeus 1758) using the earplug as a natural aging matrix that is also capable of archiving and preserving lipophilic compounds. These unprecedented lifetime profiles (i.e., birth to death) were reconstructed with a 6-mo resolution for a wide range of analytes including cortisol (stress hormone), testosterone (developmental hormone), organic contaminants (e.g., pesticides and flame retardants), and mercury. Cortisol lifetime profiles revealed a doubling of cortisol levels over baseline. Testosterone profiles suggest this male blue whale reached sexual maturity at approximately 10 y of age, which corresponds well with and improves on previous estimates. Early periods of the reconstructed contaminant profiles for pesticides (such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethanes and chlordanes), polychlorinated biphenyls, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers demonstrate significant maternal transfer occurred at 0-12 mo. The total lifetime organic contaminant burden measured between the earplug (sum of contaminants in laminae layers) and blubber samples from the same organism were similar. Total mercury profiles revealed reduced maternal transfer and two distinct pulse events compared with organic contaminants. The use of a whale earplug to reconstruct lifetime chemical profiles will allow for a more comprehensive examination of stress, development, and contaminant exposure, as well as improve the assessment of contaminant use/emission, environmental noise, ship traffic, and climate change on these important marine sentinels.

Concepts: Hormone, Cortisol, Flame retardant, Puberty, Polychlorinated biphenyl, Biphenyl, Humpback whale, Whale song


Reconstructing the evolution of baleen whales (Mysticeti) has been problematic because morphological and genetic analyses have produced different scenarios. This might be caused by genomic admixture that may have taken place among some rorquals. We present the genomes of six whales, including the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), to reconstruct a species tree of baleen whales and to identify phylogenetic conflicts. Evolutionary multilocus analyses of 34,192 genome fragments reveal a fast radiation of rorquals at 10.5 to 7.5 million years ago coinciding with oceanic circulation shifts. The evolutionarily enigmatic gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) is placed among rorquals, and the blue whale genome shows a high degree of heterozygosity. The nearly equal frequency of conflicting gene trees suggests that speciation of rorqual evolution occurred under gene flow, which is best depicted by evolutionary networks. Especially in marine environments, sympatric speciation might be common; our results raise questions about how genetic divergence can be established.

Concepts: Gene, Genetics, Evolution, Organism, Speciation, Humpback whale, Fin whale, Baleen whales


A current threat to the marine ecosystem is the high level of solar ultraviolet radiation (UV). Large whales have recently been shown to suffer sun-induced skin damage from continuous UV exposure. Genotoxic consequences of such exposure remain unknown for these long-lived marine species, as does their capacity to counteract UV-induced insults. We show that UV exposure induces mitochondrial DNA damage in the skin of seasonally sympatric fin, sperm, and blue whales and that this damage accumulates with age. However, counteractive molecular mechanisms are markedly different between species. For example, sperm whales, a species that remains for long periods at the sea surface, activate genotoxic stress pathways in response to UV exposure whereas the paler blue whale relies on increased pigmentation as the season progresses. Our study also shows that whales can modulate their responses to fluctuating levels of UV, and that different evolutionary constraints may have shaped their response strategies.

Concepts: DNA, Mutation, Ultraviolet, Sun, Sunlight, Titanium dioxide, Mutagen, Humpback whale


The pulmonary system is a common site for bacterial infections in cetaceans, but very little is known about their respiratory microbiome. We used a small, unmanned hexacopter to collect exhaled breath condensate (blow) from two geographically distinct populations of apparently healthy humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), sampled in the Massachusetts coastal waters off Cape Cod (n = 17) and coastal waters around Vancouver Island (n = 9). Bacterial and archaeal small-subunit rRNA genes were amplified and sequenced from blow samples, including many of sparse volume, as well as seawater and other controls, to characterize the associated microbial community. The blow microbiomes were distinct from the seawater microbiomes and included 25 phylogenetically diverse bacteria common to all sampled whales. This core assemblage comprised on average 36% of the microbiome, making it one of the more consistent animal microbiomes studied to date. The closest phylogenetic relatives of 20 of these core microbes were previously detected in marine mammals, suggesting that this core microbiome assemblage is specialized for marine mammals and may indicate a healthy, noninfected pulmonary system. Pathogen screening was conducted on the microbiomes at the genus level, which showed that all blow and few seawater microbiomes contained relatives of bacterial pathogens; no known cetacean respiratory pathogens were detected in the blow. Overall, the discovery of a shared large core microbiome in humpback whales is an important advancement for health and disease monitoring of this species and of other large whales. IMPORTANCE The conservation and management of large whales rely in part upon health monitoring of individuals and populations, and methods generally necessitate invasive sampling. Here, we used a small, unmanned hexacopter drone to noninvasively fly above humpback whales from two populations, capture their exhaled breath (blow), and examine the associated microbiome. In the first extensive examination of the large-whale blow microbiome, we present surprising results about the discovery of a large core microbiome that was shared across individual whales from geographically separated populations in two ocean basins. We suggest that this core microbiome, in addition to other microbiome characteristics, could be a useful feature for health monitoring of large whales worldwide.

Concepts: Bacteria, Microbiology, Pathogen, Cetacea, Whale, Humpback whale, Whale surfacing behaviour, Whaling


Mid-frequency military (1-10 kHz) sonars have been associated with lethal mass strandings of deep-diving toothed whales, but the effects on endangered baleen whale species are virtually unknown. Here, we used controlled exposure experiments with simulated military sonar and other mid-frequency sounds to measure behavioural responses of tagged blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) in feeding areas within the Southern California Bight. Despite using source levels orders of magnitude below some operational military systems, our results demonstrate that mid-frequency sound can significantly affect blue whale behaviour, especially during deep feeding modes. When a response occurred, behavioural changes varied widely from cessation of deep feeding to increased swimming speed and directed travel away from the sound source. The variability of these behavioural responses was largely influenced by a complex interaction of behavioural state, the type of mid-frequency sound and received sound level. Sonar-induced disruption of feeding and displacement from high-quality prey patches could have significant and previously undocumented impacts on baleen whale foraging ecology, individual fitness and population health.

Concepts: Sound, Cetacea, Humpback whale, Whale song, Fin whale, Blue whale, Baleen whales, Baleen


Population-level conservation is required to prevent biodiversity loss within a species, but it first necessitates determining the number and distribution of populations. Many whale populations are still depleted due to 20th century whaling. Whales are one of the most logistically difficult and expensive animals to study because of their mobility, pelagic lifestyle and often remote habitat. We tackle the question of population structure in the Antarctic blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus intermedia) - a critically endangered subspecies and the largest extant animal - by capitalizing on the largest genetic dataset to date for Antarctic blue whales. We found evidence of three populations that are sympatric in the Antarctic feeding grounds and likely occupy separate breeding grounds. Our study adds to knowledge of population structure in the Antarctic blue whale. Future research should invest in locating the breeding grounds and migratory routes of Antarctic blue whales through satellite telemetry to confirm their population structure and allow population-level conservation.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Species, Extinction, Conservation reliant species, Humpback whale, Whale song, Fin whale, Blue whale


Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) were hunted commercially in Canada’s Pacific region until 1966. Depleted to an estimated 1,400 individuals throughout the North Pacific, humpback whales are listed as Threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) and Endangered under the US Endangered Species Act. We conducted an 8-year photo-identification study to monitor humpback whale usage of a coastal fjord system in British Columbia (BC), Canada that was recently proposed as candidate critical habitat for the species under SARA. This participatory research program built collaborations among First Nations, environmental non-governmental organizations and academics. The study site, including the territorial waters of Gitga'at First Nation, is an important summertime feeding destination for migratory humpback whales, but is small relative to the population’s range. We estimated abundance and survivorship using mark-recapture methods using photographs of naturally marked individuals. Abundance of humpback whales in the region was large, relative to the site’s size, and generally increased throughout the study period. The resulting estimate of adult survivorship (0.979, 95% CI: 0.914, 0.995) is at the high end of previously reported estimates. A high rate of resights provides new evidence for inter-annual site fidelity to these local waters. Habitat characteristics of our study area are considered ecologically significant and unique, and this should be considered as regulatory agencies consider proposals for high-volume crude oil and liquefied natural gas tanker traffic through the area. Monitoring population recovery of a highly mobile, migratory species is daunting for low-cost, community-led science. Focusing on a small, important subset of the animals' range can make this challenge more tractable. Given low statistical power and high variability, our community is considering simpler ecological indicators of population health, such as the number of individuals harmed or killed each year by human activities, including ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.

Concepts: Hawaii, Endangered species, Whale, Humpback whale, Whale surfacing behaviour


Harvested to perilously low numbers by commercial whaling during the past century, the large scale response of Antarctic blue whales Balaenoptera musculus intermedia to environmental variability is poorly understood. This study uses acoustic data collected from 586 sonobuoys deployed in the austral summers of 1997 through 2009, south of 38°S, coupled with visual observations of blue whales during the IWC SOWER line-transect surveys. The characteristic Z-call and D-call of Antarctic blue whales were detected using an automated detection template and visual verification method. Using a random forest model, we showed the environmental preferences pattern, spatial occurrence and acoustic behaviour of Antarctic blue whales. Distance to the southern boundary of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (SBACC), latitude and distance from the nearest Antarctic shores were the main geographic predictors of blue whale call occurrence. Satellite-derived sea surface height, sea surface temperature, and productivity (chlorophyll-a) were the most important environmental predictors of blue whale call occurrence. Call rates of D-calls were strongly predicted by the location of the SBACC, latitude and visually detected number of whales in an area while call rates of Z-call were predicted by the SBACC, latitude and longitude. Satellite-derived sea surface height, wind stress, wind direction, water depth, sea surface temperatures, chlorophyll-a and wind speed were important environmental predictors of blue whale call rates in the Southern Ocean. Blue whale call occurrence and call rates varied significantly in response to inter-annual and long term variability of those environmental predictors. Our results identify the response of Antarctic blue whales to inter-annual variability in environmental conditions and highlighted potential suitable habitats for this population. Such emerging knowledge about the acoustic behaviour, environmental and habitat preferences of Antarctic blue whales is important in improving the management and conservation of this highly depleted species.

Concepts: Antarctica, Sea surface temperature, Humpback whale, Southern Ocean, Whale song, Fin whale, Blue whale, Antarctic Circumpolar Current