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Keywords:

  • photoidentification;
  • sperm whale;
  • Physeter macrocephalus;
  • changes with time

Abstract

We observed changes with time in the patterns of characteristic fluke markings used to identify sperm whales. Changes were categorized as minor, moderate, or major based on their severity. These change types were found to occur at rates of 0.9%, 11.8%, and 1.3% per individual per year, respectively. Gain and loss rates for each of seven different mark types were also calculated. The highest estimated rate was the gain of small nicks at 0.08 per individual per year. Most individuals identified by us possess at least a few characteristic marks and, therefore, changes of the type observed in this study are unlikely to severely affect their recognizability. For all but one mark type, gain rates were higher than loss rates, indicating that individuals may be accumulating marks with age. Over long periods this could eventually make individuals unrecognizable, with the result that population sizes calculated from these data may be overestimated. As long as photoidentification studies are conducted sufficiently often, and these changes are as gradual as they appear to be, this problem should be minimal.