Changes in North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) cow–calf association times and use of the calving ground: 1993–2005



Like most mysticetes, North Atlantic right whale cows generally separate from their calves on their feeding grounds within a year. Right whale life history data from 1993 to 2005 were analyzed to determine the duration of cow/calf associations and where the pair separated. A change occurred with the 2001 cows; 71% of those available stayed with their calves into the second year and this behavior remained elevated for several years. Less experienced cows, independent of their age, were more likely to extend their associations. The occurrence of cow/yearling associations was not related to the length of the cow's previous interbirth interval, used as a proxy for cow condition, but the hypothesis that body condition impacts how long cows nurse their young could not be adequately tested. Seventy-seven percent of the observed cow/yearling pairs also returned to the calving ground, a substantial physiological investment given the 1,450 km plus migration and the fact that they fast there, indicating that factors other than nutrition also influenced the cow's behavior. The concurrent increase in juveniles in the shallow waters of the winter calving grounds may afford naive whales greater protection from predators or provide a social benefit that improves their overall fitness.