Social structure in migrating humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae)


Bill Amos. Fax: + + 44-1223-336616; E-mail:


Although largely solitary, humpback whales exhibit a number of behaviours where individuals co-operate with one another, for example during bubble net feeding. Such cases could be due to reciprocal altruism brought on by exceptional circumstances, for example the presence of abundant shoaling fish. An alternative explanation is that these behaviours have evolved through kin selection. With little restriction to either communication or movement, diffuse groups of relatives could maintain some form of social organization without the need to travel in tight-nit units. To try to distinguish between these hypotheses, we took advantage of the fact that migrating humpback whales often swim together in small groups. If kin selection is important in humpback whale biology, these groups should be enriched for relatives. Consequently, we analysed biopsy samples from 57 groups of humpback whales migrating off Eastern Australia in 1992. A total of 142 whales were screened for eight microsatellite markers. Mitochondrial DNA sequences (371 bp) were also used to verify and assist kinship identification. Our data add support to the notion that mothers travel with their offspring for the first year of the calf’s life. However, beyond the presence of mother-calf/yearling pairs, no obvious relatedness pattern was found among whales sampled either in the same pod or on the same day. Levels of relatedness did not vary between migratory phases (towards or away from the breeding ground), nor between the two sexes considered either overall or in the north or south migrations separately. These findings suggest that, if any social organization does exist, it is formed transiently when needed rather than being a constant feature of the population, and hence is more likely based on reciprocal altruism than kin selection.