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Keywords:

  • gametic mark recapture;
  • geneflow;
  • population structure

Abstract

The identification and characterization of reproductively isolated subpopulations or ‘stocks’ are essential for effective conservation and management decisions. This can be difficult in vagile marine species like marine mammals. We used paternity assignment and ‘gametic recapture’ to examine the reproductive autonomy of southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) on their New Zealand (NZ) calving grounds. We derived DNA profiles for 34 mother–calf pairs from skin biopsy samples, using sex-specific markers, 13 microsatellite loci and mtDNA haplotypes. We constructed DNA profiles for 314 adult males, representing 30% of the census male abundance of the NZ stock, previously estimated from genotypic mark-recapture modelling to be 1085 (95% CL 855, 1416). Under the hypothesis of demographic closure and the assumption of equal reproductive success among males, we predict: (i) the proportion of paternities assigned will reflect the proportion of the male population sampled and (ii) the gametic mark–recapture (GMR) estimate of male abundance will be equivalent to the census male estimate for the NZ stock. Consistent with these predictions, we found that the proportion of assigned paternities equalled the proportion of the census male population size sampled. Using the sample of males as the initial capture, and paternity assignment as the recapture, the GMR estimate of male abundance was 1001 (95% CL 542, 1469), similar to the male census estimate. These findings suggest that right whales returning to the NZ calving ground are reproductively autonomous on a generational timescale, as well as isolated by maternal fidelity on an evolutionary timescale, from others in the Indo-Pacific region.