ESR 27:207-218 (2015)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00657

Conflicting rates of increase in the sperm whale population of the eastern Caribbean: positive observed rates do not reflect a healthy population

Hal Whitehead1,*, Shane Gero1,2

1Department of Biology, Dalhousie University, 1355 Oxford St, Halifax B3H 4J1, Canada
2Present address: Department of Bioscience, University of Aarhus, C.F. Møllers Allé 3, Building 1131, Room 228, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Observed rates of increase calculated from trends in the numbers of animals present in a population should generally agree with those estimated from life-history data. However, for a small population of individually identified sperm whales Physeter macrocephalus occupying the waters of the eastern Caribbean there is a discrepancy. Using a mark-recapture analysis that included heterogeneity in identification, the population, numbering about 156 adults (95% CI 126-195) in 1998, has been increasing at 3.4% yr-1 (95% CI: 1.0-5.7% yr-1). However, a 2-stage matrix population model including unweaned calves and adults (and excluding mature males), whose parameters were estimated directly from empirical data, gave a projected rate of increase of -2.7% yr-1 (95% CI: -5.4 to -0.4% yr-1). This estimate is primarily sensitive to calculated adult mortality. The discrepancy between the observed and projected rates of increase for this population may be explained by a high, probably anthropogenic, mortality of sperm whales in the eastern Caribbean, coupled with immigration from surrounding regions, so the area becomes an attractive sink (ecological trap). The analysis emphasizes the fragility of sperm whale populations. More generally, our analysis of this population shows that a positive observed rate of increase is not necessarily a sign of a healthy population. This case study highlights the importance of analysing populations of endangered species using multiple methodologies and with a solid base of individual-level empirical data based on longitudinal monitoring.


KEY WORDS: Population modelling · Rate of increase · Life history · Mark-recapture · Mortality · Sperm whale · Attractive sink · Ecological trap


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Cite this article as: Whitehead H, Gero S (2015) Conflicting rates of increase in the sperm whale population of the eastern Caribbean: positive observed rates do not reflect a healthy population. Endang Species Res 27:207-218. https://doi.org/10.3354/esr00657

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