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Keywords:

  • Balaenoptera musculus ;
  • Chile;
  • conservation genetics;
  • low population size;
  • microsatellites loci;
  • mitochondrial DNA

Abstract

It is generally assumed that species with low population sizes have lower genetic diversities than larger populations and vice versa. However, this would not be the case for long-lived species with long generation times, and which populations have declined due to anthropogenic effects, such as the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus). This species was intensively decimated globally to near extinction during the 20th century. Along the Chilean coast, it is estimated that at least 4288 blue whales were hunted from an apparently pre-exploitation population size (k) of a maximum of 6200 individuals (Southeastern Pacific). Thus, here, we describe the mtDNA (control region) and nDNA (microsatellites) diversities of the Chilean blue whale aggregation site in order to verify the expectation of low genetic diversity in small populations. We then compare our findings with other blue whale aggregations in the Southern Hemisphere. Interestingly, although the estimated population size is small compared with the pre-whaling era, there is still considerable genetic diversity, even after the population crash, both in mitochondrial (N = 46) and nuclear (N = 52) markers (Hd = 0.890 and Ho = 0.692, respectively). Our results suggest that this diversity could be a consequence of the long generation times and the relatively short period of time elapsed since the end of whaling, which has been observed in other heavily-exploited whale populations. The genetic variability of blue whales on their southern Chile feeding grounds was similar to that found in other Southern Hemisphere blue whale feeding grounds. Our phylogenetic analysis of mtDNA haplotypes does not show extensive differentiation of populations among Southern Hemisphere blue whale feeding grounds. The present study suggests that although levels of genetic diversity are frequently used as estimators of population health, these parameters depend on the biology of the species and should be taken into account in a monitoring framework study to obtain a more complete picture of the conservation status of a population.