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Nuclear and mitochondrial markers reveal distinctiveness of a small population of bottlenose whales (Hyperoodon ampullatus) in the western North Atlantic


Merel L. Dalebout, Present address: School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia. Fax: +61-2-9385-1558; E-mail:


Small populations at the edge of a species’ distribution can represent evolutionary relics left behind after range contractions due to climate change or human exploitation. The distinctiveness and genetic diversity of a small population of bottlenose whales in the Gully, a submarine canyon off Nova Scotia, was quantified by comparison to other North Atlantic populations using 10 microsatellites and mitrochondrial DNA (mtDNA) control region sequences (434 bp). Both markers confirmed the distinctiveness of the Gully (n = 34) from the next nearest population, off Labrador (n = 127; microsatellites –FST= 0.0243, P < 0.0001; mtDNA –ΦST = 0.0456, P < 0.05). Maximum likelihood microsatellite estimates suggest that less than two individuals per generation move between these areas, refuting the hypothesis of population links through seasonal migration. Both males and females appear to be philopatric, based on significant differentiation at both genomes and similar levels of structuring among the sexes for microsatellites. mtDNA diversity was very low in all populations (h = 0.51, π = 0.14%), a pattern which may be due to selective sweeps associated with this species’ extreme deep-diving ecology. Whaling had a substantial impact on bottlenose whale abundance, with over 65 000 animals killed before the hunt ceased in the early 1970s. Genetic diversity was similar among all populations, however, and no signal for bottlenecks was detected, suggesting that the Gully is not a relic of a historically wider distribution. Instead, this unique ecosystem appears to have long provided a stable year-round habitat for a distinct population of bottlenose whales.