Seasonality of reproduction and the length of gestation in southern right whales Eubalaena australis


c/o South African Museum. P.O. Box 61, Cape Town, 8000 South Africa


From the seasonal occurrence of 11 stranded nconates, the earliest and latest observations of possible calving behaviour, and the seasonal incidence of calves in shore-based counts, the extent of the calving season for southern right whales off South Africa can be characterized as from late June to late October, with a peak in August. The occurrence of 89 ‘new’ calves located during monthly photogrammetric flights between July or August and November indicated that 50% were born by 1 September in 1988 and by 15 August in 1989, and that the effective calving season (in which 95.5% of calves are estimated to have been born) lasted 118 days in each year. From regression analysis of the lengths of 221 foetuses and their dates of death, and assuming a mean date of birth of 24 August, the duration of the linear phase of foetal growth is estimated to be 325 days, and the mean size at birth 6-1 m. Uncertainty over the duration of the initial, non-linear phase of foetal growth results in alternative estimates of 357 or 396 days for the total length of gestation. Foetuses of smaller females seem to be conceived later (or experience a longer initial, non-linear phase of foetal growth) than those of larger females. The apparent rarity of adult females in coastal waters in the year in which they are presumed to conceive is attributed to either a brief residence time or the possibility that conceptions may occur well outside coastal waters.