Population spatial structuring on the feeding grounds in North Atlantic humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae)


Peter T. Stevick, Sea Mammal Research Unit, University of St Andrews, Fife KY16 8LB, UK.
Email: peter@hwdt.org


Population spatial structuring among North Atlantic humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae on the summer feeding grounds was investigated using movement patterns of identified individuals. We analysed the results from an intensive 2-year ocean-basin-scale investigation resulting in 1658 individuals identified by natural markings and 751 individuals by genetic markers supplemented with data from a long-term collaborative study with 3063 individuals identified by natural markings. Re-sighting distances ranged from <1 km to >2200 km. The frequencies (F) of re-sighting distances (D) observed in consecutive years were best modelled by an inverse allometric function (F=6631D−1.24, r2=0.984), reflecting high levels of site fidelity (median re-sighting distance <40 km) with occasional long-distance movement (5% of re-sightings >550 km). The distribution of re-sighting distances differed east and west of 45°W, with more long-distance movement in the east. This difference is consistent with regional patterns of prey distribution and predictability. Four feeding aggregations were identified: the Gulf of Maine, eastern Canada, West Greenland and the eastern North Atlantic. There was an exchange rate of 0.98% between the western feeding aggregations. The prevalence of long-distance movement in the east made delineation of possible additional feeding aggregations less clear. Limited exchange between sites separated by as little as tens of kilometres produced lower-level structuring within all feeding aggregations. Regional and temporal differences in movement patterns reflected similar foraging responses to varying patterns of prey availability and predictability. A negative relationship was shown between relative abundance of herring and sand lance in the Gulf of Maine and humpback whale movement from the Gulf of Maine to eastern Canada.