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Keywords:

  • social behavior;
  • baleen whale;
  • right whale;
  • Eubalaena glacialis

Abstract

Marine mammal social interactions are poorly understood primarily because of the difficulty of observing these behaviors in the wild. Observations of copulations in North Atlantic right whale surface active groups (SAGs) have led to the hypothesis that the function of these groups is for conception. The occurrence and composition of SAGs sighted from 1992 to 2001 were investigated on the basis of age, sex, and reproductive status of individuals. A total of 918 SAG events were documented. SAGs were observed in all habitat areas and in all months in which right whales were sighted. Group compositions revealed both potentially conceptive groups and nonconceptive groups. Of right whales whose age was known, 93% were first sighted in SAGs as juveniles, and more than half of all observed groups contained at least one juvenile whale. The group composition and timing of occurrence of SAGs do not support the hypothesis that all groups serve a purely conceptive function. Their functional role is likely much broader. Other potential functions include play, mating practice, or maintenance of social bonds.