The social and reproductive biology of Humpback Whales: an ecological perspective



    1. Department of Zoology, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen AB9 2TN, UK
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    • †Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, NHB 390 MRC 108, Tenth & Constitution SW, Washington, DC 20560, USA.


Existing knowledge of the social organization, mating system and reproduction of Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) is reviewed to assess how our current understanding of this wide-ranging marine mammal fits into the predictive framework developed from ecological studies of more accessible terrestrial taxa. The small unstable groups characteristic of this species on its summer feeding grounds appear to be a function of absence of predation and of the patchy, mobile nature of most prey; the absence of territoriality and the minimal importance of kinship in associations are also predictable consequences of the latter. The mating system is similar to both leks and to male dominance polygyny, in which males display (sing) or directly compete (perhaps sometimes in coalitions) for access to females. However, the rigid spatial structure characteristic of classic leks is absent. The mating system of this species is sufficiently different to merit a novel category, and ‘floating lek’ is proposed. The widespread distribution of females resulting from absence of both predation and resources during the breeding season preclude simultaneous monopolization by males of more than one potential mate. Furthermore, these factors, together with a male-biased operational sex ratio, minimize the possibility of competition among females. The intensity of intrasexual competition among males conforms to predictions derived from information on testis size and from expectation of future reproductive success. Female choice and, to a lesser extent, differential allocation of competitive effort by males, appears likely. Lack of interpopulation variation in social and mating behaviour, and in general reproductive biology, is likely a response to similarity of marine environmental conditions. Year-to-year variation in reproductive rates may be linked to variations in the abundance of prey. The invariably uniparous nature of female Humpback Whales is assumed to be related to the energetic demands of lactation, and the lower ratio of available energy partitioned to reproduction that is characteristic of larger mammals. The reversed sexual size dimorphism of this species may reflect different selective pressures on males and females. Finally, there is now evidence that, as in some other taxa, offspring sex ratio is related to maternal condition.