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Concept: Whaling


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


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


Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) have a nearly circumpolar distribution, and occasionally occupy warmer shallow coastal areas during summertime that may facilitate molting. However, relatively little is known about the occurrence of molting and associated behaviors in bowhead whales. We opportunistically observed whales in Cumberland Sound, Nunavut, Canada with skin irregularities consistent with molting during August 2014, and collected a skin sample from a biopsied whale that revealed loose epidermis and sloughing. During August 2016, we flew a small unmanned aerial system (sUAS) over whales to take video and still images to: 1) determine unique individuals; 2) estimate the proportion of the body of unique individuals that exhibited sloughing skin; 3) determine the presence or absence of superficial lines representative of rock-rubbing behavior; and 4) measure body lengths to infer age-class. The still images revealed that all individuals (n = 81 whales) were sloughing skin, and that nearly 40% of them had mottled skin over more than two-thirds of their bodies. The video images captured bowhead whales rubbing on large rocks in shallow, coastal areas-likely to facilitate molting. Molting and rock rubbing appears to be pervasive during late summer for whales in the eastern Canadian Arctic.

Concepts: Skin, Alaska, Canada, Inuit, Stratum corneum, Whaling, Bowhead whale, Foxe Basin


The novel observation of a palatal retial organ in the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) is reported, with characterization of its form and function. This bulbous ridge of highly vascularized tissue, here designated the corpus cavernosum maxillaris, runs along the center of the hard palate, expanding cranially to form two large lobes that terminate under the tip of the rostral palate, with another enlarged node at the caudal terminus. Gross anatomical and microscopic observation of tissue sections discloses a web-like internal mass with a large blood volume. Histological examination reveals large numbers of blood vessels and vascular as well as extravascular spaces resembling a blood-filled, erectile sponge. These spaces, as well as accompanying blood vessels, extend to the base of the epithelium. We contend that this organ provides a thermoregulatory adaptation by which bowhead whales (1) control heat loss by transferring internal, metabolically generated body heat to cold seawater and (2) protect the brain from hyperthermia. We postulate that this organ may play additional roles in baleen growth and in detecting prey, and that its ability to dissipate heat might maintain proper operating temperature for palatal mechanoreceptors or chemoreceptors to detect the presence and density of intraoral prey. Anat Rec, 2013. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Concepts: Whaling, Bowhead whale


The evolution of baleen constituted a major evolutionary change that made it possible for baleen whales to reach enormous body sizes while filter feeding on tiny organisms and migrating over tremendous distances. Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) live in the Arctic where the annual cycle of increasing and decreasing ice cover affects their habitat, prey, and migration. During the nursing period, bowheads grow rapidly; but between weaning and approximately year 5, bowhead whales display sustained baleen and head growth while limiting growth in the rest of their bodies. During this period, they withdraw resources from the skeleton, in particular the ribs, which may lose 40% of bone mass. Such dramatic changes in bones of immature mammals are rare, although fossil cetaceans between 40 and 50 million years ago show an array of rib specializations that include bone loss and are usually interpreted as related to buoyancy control.

Concepts: Evolution, Skeletal system, Inuit, Whaling, Bowhead whale


We used network-based diffusion analysis to reveal the cultural spread of a naturally occurring foraging innovation, lobtail feeding, through a population of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) over a period of 27 years. Support for models with a social transmission component was 6 to 23 orders of magnitude greater than for models without. The spatial and temporal distribution of sand lance, a prey species, was also important in predicting the rate of acquisition. Our results, coupled with existing knowledge about song traditions, show that this species can maintain multiple independently evolving traditions in its populations. These insights strengthen the case that cetaceans represent a peak in the evolution of nonhuman culture, independent of the primate lineage.

Concepts: Mammal, Whale, Humpback whale, Whale surfacing behaviour, Whaling


In proximity to seismic operations, bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) decrease their calling rates. Here, we investigate the transition from normal calling behavior to decreased calling and identify two threshold levels of received sound from airgun pulses at which calling behavior changes. Data were collected in August-October 2007-2010, during the westward autumn migration in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea. Up to 40 directional acoustic recorders (DASARs) were deployed at five sites offshore of the Alaskan North Slope. Using triangulation, whale calls localized within 2 km of each DASAR were identified and tallied every 10 minutes each season, so that the detected call rate could be interpreted as the actual call production rate. Moreover, airgun pulses were identified on each DASAR, analyzed, and a cumulative sound exposure level was computed for each 10-min period each season (CSEL10-min). A Poisson regression model was used to examine the relationship between the received CSEL10-min from airguns and the number of detected bowhead calls. Calling rates increased as soon as airgun pulses were detectable, compared to calling rates in the absence of airgun pulses. After the initial increase, calling rates leveled off at a received CSEL10-min of ~94 dB re 1 μPa2-s (the lower threshold). In contrast, once CSEL10-min exceeded ~127 dB re 1 μPa2-s (the upper threshold), whale calling rates began decreasing, and when CSEL10-min values were above ~160 dB re 1 μPa2-s, the whales were virtually silent.

Concepts: Regression analysis, Alaska, Inuit, Beaufort Sea, Whaling, Bowhead whale, Foxe Basin, Alaska North Slope


The traditional view of mysticete feeding involves static baleen directly sieving particles from seawater using a simple, dead-end flow-through filtration mechanism. Flow tank experiments on bowhead (Balaena mysticetus) baleen indicate the long-standing model of dead-end filtration, at least in balaenid (bowhead and right) whales, is not merely simplistic but wrong. To recreate continuous intraoral flow, sections of baleen were tested in a flume through which water and buoyant particles circulated with variable flow velocity. Kinematic sequences were analyzed to investigate movement and capture of particles by baleen plates and fringes. Results indicate that very few particles flow directly through the baleen rack; instead much water flows anteroposteriorly along the interior (lingual) side of the rack, allowing items to be carried posteriorly and accumulate at the posterior of the mouth where they might readily be swallowed. Since water flows mainly parallel to rather than directly through the filter, the cross-flow mechanism significantly reduces entrapment and tangling of minute items in baleen fringes, obviating the need to clean the filter. The absence of copepods or other prey found trapped in the baleen of necropsied right and bowhead whales supports this hypothesis. Reduced through-baleen flow was observed with and without boundaries modeling the tongue and lips, indicating that baleen itself is the main if not sole agent of crossflow. Preliminary investigation of baleen from balaenopterid whales that use intermittent filter feeding suggests that although the biomechanics and hydrodynamics of oral flow differ, cross-flow filtration may occur to some degree in all mysticetes.

Concepts: Whale, Baleen, Whaling, Bowhead whale


The western South Atlantic (WSA) humpback whale population inhabits the coast of Brazil during the breeding and calving season in winter and spring. This population was depleted to near extinction by whaling in the mid-twentieth century. Despite recent signs of recovery, increasing coastal and offshore development pose potential threats to these animals. Therefore, continuous monitoring is needed to assess population status and support conservation strategies. The aim of this work was to present ship-based line-transect estimates of abundance for humpback whales in their WSA breeding ground and to investigate potential changes in population size. Two cruises surveyed the coast of Brazil during August-September in 2008 and 2012. The area surveyed in 2008 corresponded to the currently recognized population breeding area; effort in 2012 was limited due to unfavorable weather conditions. WSA humpback whale population size in 2008 was estimated at 16,410 (CV = 0.228, 95% CI = 10,563-25,495) animals. In order to compare abundance between 2008 and 2012, estimates for the area between Salvador and Cabo Frio, which were consistently covered in the two years, were computed at 15,332 (CV = 0.243, 95% CI = 9,595-24,500) and 19,429 (CV = 0.101, 95% CI = 15,958-23,654) whales, respectively. The difference in the two estimates represents an increase of 26.7% in whale numbers in a 4-year period. The estimated abundance for 2008 is considered the most robust for the WSA humpback whale population because the ship survey conducted in that year minimized bias from various sources. Results presented here indicate that in 2008, the WSA humpback whale population was at least around 60% of its estimated pre-modern whaling abundance and that it may recover to its pre-exploitation size sooner than previously estimated.

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