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Keywords:

  • genotyping error;
  • humpback whales;
  • kinship;
  • Megaptera novaeangliae;
  • microsatellites;
  • relatedness

Abstract

Group formation in humpback whales has been described in relation to different components of the migratory cycle, yet it is debated whether such groups represent real social bonding or ephemeral aggregations. Cooperative behaviours are exhibited during feeding activities, and it has been suggested that males may cooperate during competition for mates. Since most cooperative behaviours are expected to originate among kin, genetic relatedness represents a critical variable in the understanding of any social phenomenon, especially when cooperation cannot be confirmed unequivocally. Using an approach combining multi-locus microsatellite genotyping and several genetic relatedness estimators, we analyzed whale associations for two different wintering grounds in the Southern Hemisphere. The analyses included 648 whales sampled from 292 groups off the coast of Gabon and Northeast Madagascar, and screened for eleven microsatellite loci. Through simulations, we assessed the performance of three pairwise relatedness estimators. The individuals were molecularly sexed and their associations were investigated in the context of sex and group type. No significant association among relatives was found with the exception of mother–offspring pairs, supporting previous indications of extended maternal care. The analysis from the Gabon population also suggests that related males may avoid each other during competitive activities. Our results demonstrate that if cooperative behaviours occur on wintering grounds they are not favoured by kin selection.