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Spatial patterns of humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) sightings and survey effort: Insight into North Atlantic population structure

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Abstract

Understanding the population structure of a species is critical to its effective management and conservation. The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) has been the target of numerous research projects in several ocean basins, but no clear picture of its population structure has emerged. In the North Atlantic Ocean, genetic analyses and photo-identification movements have shown significant heterogeneity among the summer feeding grounds. Building on this knowledge, we test the hypothesis that the feeding grounds represent distinct populations by analyzing the spatial pattern of summer humpback whale sightings and survey effort. Controlling for the spatial pattern of effort, sightings are clustered, with peaks at radial distances of 300 km, 600 km, and 1,500 km. These results provide insight into the spatial extent of the summer population structure of humpback whales in the North Atlantic Ocean. Fine-scale clustering at distances of 300 km and 600 km is compatible with multiple populations consisting of the Gulf of Maine, eastern Canada, western Greenland, and Iceland. Broad-scale clustering at distances of 1,500 km may represent divisions between the western and eastern North Atlantic populations. These results provide spatial bounds to the feeding grounds of humpback whales and emphasize their distinct nature as management units.

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