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Concept: 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


Classic life-history theory predicts that menopause should not occur because there should be no selection for survival after the cessation of reproduction [1]. Yet, human females routinely live 30 years after they have stopped reproducing [2]. Only two other species-killer whales (Orcinus orca) and short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) [3, 4]-have comparable postreproductive lifespans. In theory, menopause can evolve via inclusive fitness benefits [5, 6], but the mechanisms by which postreproductive females help their kin remain enigmatic. One hypothesis is that postreproductive females act as repositories of ecological knowledge and thereby buffer kin against environmental hardships [7, 8]. We provide the first test of this hypothesis using a unique long-term dataset on wild resident killer whales. We show three key results. First, postreproductively aged females lead groups during collective movement in salmon foraging grounds. Second, leadership by postreproductively aged females is especially prominent in difficult years when salmon abundance is low. This finding is critical because salmon abundance drives both mortality and reproductive success in resident killer whales [9, 10]. Third, females are more likely to lead their sons than they are to lead their daughters, supporting predictions of recent models [5] of the evolution of menopause based on kinship dynamics. Our results show that postreproductive females may boost the fitness of kin through the transfer of ecological knowledge. The value gained from the wisdom of elders can help explain why female resident killer whales and humans continue to live long after they have stopped reproducing.

Concepts: Scientific method, Human, Male, Reproduction, Whale, Killer whale, Beached whale, Pilot whale


Infanticide can be an extreme result of sexual conflict that drives selection in species in which it occurs. It is a rarely observed behaviour but some evidence for its occurrence in cetaceans exists in three species of dolphin. Here we describe observations of an adult male killer whale (Orcinus orca) and his post-reproductive mother killing a neonate belonging to an unrelated female from the same population in the North Pacific. This is the first account of infanticide reported in killer whales and the only case committed jointly by an adult male and his mother outside of humans. Consistent with findings in other social mammals, we suggest that infanticide is a sexually selected behaviour in killer whales that could provide subsequent mating opportunities for the infanticidal male and thereby provide inclusive fitness benefits for his mother.

Concepts: Natural selection, Mammal, Endangered species, Whale, Killer whale, Beached whale, Michael Bigg, Killer whales


Understanding cumulative effects of multiple threats is key to guiding effective management to conserve endangered species. The critically endangered, Southern Resident killer whale population of the northeastern Pacific Ocean provides a data-rich case to explore anthropogenic threats on population viability. Primary threats include: limitation of preferred prey, Chinook salmon; anthropogenic noise and disturbance, which reduce foraging efficiency; and high levels of stored contaminants, including PCBs. We constructed a population viability analysis to explore possible demographic trajectories and the relative importance of anthropogenic stressors. The population is fragile, with no growth projected under current conditions, and decline expected if new or increased threats are imposed. Improvements in fecundity and calf survival are needed to reach a conservation objective of 2.3% annual population growth. Prey limitation is the most important factor affecting population growth. However, to meet recovery targets through prey management alone, Chinook abundance would have to be sustained near the highest levels since the 1970s. The most optimistic mitigation of noise and contaminants would make the difference between a declining and increasing population, but would be insufficient to reach recovery targets. Reducing acoustic disturbance by 50% combined with increasing Chinook by 15% would allow the population to reach 2.3% growth.

Concepts: Ecology, Endangered species, Salmon, Conservation, Whale, Population growth, Killer whale, Recovery Plan


The past was a world of giants, with abundant whales in the sea and large animals roaming the land. However, that world came to an end following massive late-Quaternary megafauna extinctions on land and widespread population reductions in great whale populations over the past few centuries. These losses are likely to have had important consequences for broad-scale nutrient cycling, because recent literature suggests that large animals disproportionately drive nutrient movement. We estimate that the capacity of animals to move nutrients away from concentration patches has decreased to about 8% of the preextinction value on land and about 5% of historic values in oceans. For phosphorus (P), a key nutrient, upward movement in the ocean by marine mammals is about 23% of its former capacity (previously about 340 million kg of P per year). Movements by seabirds and anadromous fish provide important transfer of nutrients from the sea to land, totalling ∼150 million kg of P per year globally in the past, a transfer that has declined to less than 4% of this value as a result of the decimation of seabird colonies and anadromous fish populations. We propose that in the past, marine mammals, seabirds, anadromous fish, and terrestrial animals likely formed an interlinked system recycling nutrients from the ocean depths to the continental interiors, with marine mammals moving nutrients from the deep sea to surface waters, seabirds and anadromous fish moving nutrients from the ocean to land, and large animals moving nutrients away from hotspots into the continental interior.

Concepts: Plant, Fish, Ecology, Oceanography, Ocean, Mariana Trench, Whale, Forage fish


Many marine mammal predators, particularly pinnipeds, have increased in abundance in recent decades, generating new challenges for balancing human uses with recovery goals via ecosystem-based management. We used a spatio-temporal bioenergetics model of the Northeast Pacific Ocean to quantify how predation by three species of pinnipeds and killer whales (Orcinus orca) on Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) has changed since the 1970s along the west coast of North America, and compare these estimates to salmon fisheries. We find that from 1975 to 2015, biomass of Chinook salmon consumed by pinnipeds and killer whales increased from 6,100 to 15,200 metric tons (from 5 to 31.5 million individual salmon). Though there is variation across the regions in our model, overall, killer whales consume the largest biomass of Chinook salmon, but harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) consume the largest number of individuals. The decrease in adult Chinook salmon harvest from 1975-2015 was 16,400 to 9,600 metric tons. Thus, Chinook salmon removals (harvest + consumption) increased in the past 40 years despite catch reductions by fisheries, due to consumption by recovering pinnipeds and endangered killer whales. Long-term management strategies for Chinook salmon will need to consider potential conflicts between rebounding predators or endangered predators and prey.

Concepts: Salmon, Chinook salmon, Oncorhynchus, Whale, Killer whale


The True’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon mirus, True 1913) is a poorly known member of the Ziphiidae family. Its distribution in the northern hemisphere is thought to be restricted to the temperate or warm temperate waters of the North Atlantic, while a few stranding records from the southern hemisphere suggest a wider and antitropical distribution, extending to waters from the Atlantic coast of Brazil to South Africa, Mozambique, Australia and the Tasman Sea coast of New Zealand. This paper (i) reports the first molecular confirmation of the occurrence of the True’s beaked whale at the southern limit of its distribution recorded in the northeast Atlantic: the Azores and Canary Islands (macaronesian ecoregion); (ii) describes a new colouration for this species using evidence from a whale with molecular species confirmation; and (iii) contributes to the sparse worldwide database of live sightings, including the first underwater video recording of this species and close images of a calf. Species identification was confirmed in two cases using mitochondrial DNA control region and cytochrome b gene markers: a subadult male True’s beaked whale that stranded in El Hierro, Canary Islands, in November 2012, and a subadult male found floating dead near Faial, the Azores, in July 2004. The whale that stranded in the Canary Islands had a clearly delimited white area on its head, extending posteriorly from the tip of the beak to cover the blowhole dorsally and the gular grooves ventrally. This colouration contrasts with previous descriptions for the species and it may be rare, but it exemplifies the variability of the colouration of True’s beaked whales in the North Atlantic, further confirmed here by live sightings data. The recording of several observations of this species in deep but relatively coastal waters off the Azores and the Canary Islands suggests that these archipelagos may be unique locations to study the behaviour of the enigmatic True’s beaked whale.

Concepts: Atlantic Ocean, Macaronesia, Canary Islands, Azores, Madeira, Pacific Ocean, Equator, Whale


Whale watching has become increasingly popular as an ecotourism activity around the globe and is beneficial for environmental education and local economies. Southern Resident killer whales (Orcinus orca) comprise an endangered population that is frequently observed by a large whale watching fleet in the inland waters of Washington state and British Columbia. One of the factors identified as a risk to recovery for the population is the effect of vessels and associated noise. An examination of the effects of vessels and associated noise on whale behavior utilized novel equipment to address limitations of previous studies. Digital acoustic recording tags (DTAGs) measured the noise levels the tagged whales received while laser positioning systems allowed collection of geo-referenced data for tagged whales and all vessels within 1000 m of the tagged whale. The objective of the current study was to compare vessel data and DTAG recordings to relate vessel traffic to the ambient noise received by tagged whales. Two analyses were conducted, one including all recording intervals, and one that excluded intervals when only the research vessel was present. For all data, significant predictors of noise levels were length (inverse relationship), number of propellers, and vessel speed, but only 15% of the variation in noise was explained by this model. When research-vessel-only intervals were excluded, vessel speed was the only significant predictor of noise levels, and explained 42% of the variation. Simple linear regressions (ignoring covariates) found that average vessel speed and number of propellers were the only significant correlates with noise levels. We conclude that vessel speed is the most important predictor of noise levels received by whales in this study. Thus, measures that reduce vessel speed in the vicinity of killer whales would reduce noise exposure in this population.

Concepts: Endangered species, Whale, Whale watching, Killer whale, Beached whale, Michael Bigg, Killer whales


Organochlorine (OC) pesticides and the more persistent polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have well-established dose-dependent toxicities to birds, fish and mammals in experimental studies, but the actual impact of OC pollutants on European marine top predators remains unknown. Here we show that several cetacean species have very high mean blubber PCB concentrations likely to cause population declines and suppress population recovery. In a large pan-European meta-analysis of stranded (n = 929) or biopsied (n = 152) cetaceans, three out of four species:- striped dolphins (SDs), bottlenose dolphins (BNDs) and killer whales (KWs) had mean PCB levels that markedly exceeded all known marine mammal PCB toxicity thresholds. Some locations (e.g. western Mediterranean Sea, south-west Iberian Peninsula) are global PCB “hotspots” for marine mammals. Blubber PCB concentrations initially declined following a mid-1980s EU ban, but have since stabilised in UK harbour porpoises and SDs in the western Mediterranean Sea. Some small or declining populations of BNDs and KWs in the NE Atlantic were associated with low recruitment, consistent with PCB-induced reproductive toxicity. Despite regulations and mitigation measures to reduce PCB pollution, their biomagnification in marine food webs continues to cause severe impacts among cetacean top predators in European seas.

Concepts: Mediterranean Sea, Europe, Spain, Polychlorinated biphenyl, Dolphin, Cetacea, Whale, Marine mammals


The difficulties associated with detecting population boundaries have long constrained the conservation and management of highly mobile, wide-ranging marine species, such as killer whales (Orcinus orca). In this study, we use data from 26 nuclear microsatellite loci and mitochondrial DNA sequences (988bp) to test a priori hypotheses about population subdivisions generated from a decade of killer whale surveys across the northern North Pacific. A total of 462 remote skin biopsies were collected from wild killer whales primarily between 2001 and 2010 from the northern Gulf of Alaska to the Sea of Okhotsk, representing both the piscivorous “resident” and the mammal-eating “transient” (or Bigg’s) killer whales. Divergence of the 2 ecotypes was supported by both mtDNA and microsatellites. Geographic patterns of genetic differentiation were supported by significant regions of genetic discontinuity, providing evidence of population structuring within both ecotypes and corroborating direct observations of restricted movements of individual whales. In the Aleutian Islands (Alaska), subpopulations, or groups with significantly different mtDNA and microsatellite allele frequencies, were largely delimited by major oceanographic boundaries for resident killer whales. Although Amchitka Pass represented a major subdivision for transient killer whales between the central and western Aleutian Islands, several smaller subpopulations were evident throughout the eastern Aleutians and Bering Sea. Support for seasonally sympatric transient subpopulations around Unimak Island suggests isolating mechanisms other than geographic distance within this highly mobile top predator.

Concepts: DNA, Alaska, Pacific Ocean, Whale, Killer whale, Beached whale, Aleutian Islands, Vitus Bering