MEPS 542:265-282 (2016)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps11547

Health of North Atlantic right whales Eubalaena glacialis over three decades: from individual health to demographic and population health trends

Rosalind M. Rolland1,*, Robert S. Schick2, Heather M. Pettis1, Amy R. Knowlton1, Philip K. Hamilton1, James S. Clark3, Scott D. Kraus1

1John H. Prescott Marine Laboratory, New England Aquarium, Boston, MA 02110, USA
2Centre for Research into Ecological and Environmental Modelling, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Fife KY16 9LZ, UK
3Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708, USA
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Marine mammals are faced with increasing challenges from environmental fluctuation, climate change, and disturbances from human activities. Anthropogenic mortalities have been well documented, but it is difficult to assess the sub-lethal effects of disturbance on the fitness of marine wildlife, and to distinguish these impacts from natural variations in health and reproduction. Here, we used photographic data on body and skin condition, blowhole cyamids, and rake marks, to evaluate the health of North Atlantic right whales Eubalaena glacialis from 1980 to 2008. We applied a hierarchical Bayesian model to these data to estimate the underlying continuous health status of individuals, demographic groups, and the population to characterize health patterns and temporal trends. Visual health scores (scaled from 0 to 100) from 48560 sighting events were used to estimate the health of 622 identified right whales on a monthly basis. Health in most whales fluctuated between 70 and 90, and health scores of <60 were observed in whales in poor condition. Health varied by sex, age-class and reproductive state, with the greatest annual variability occurring in actively reproducing females. Calving females had significantly higher health scores than non-calving females, and a steep deterioration in population health coincided with a dramatic decline in calving from 1998 to 2000. Health in all demographic groups and the population declined over the 3 decades of observations. Given the inevitable data gaps that occur in most marine wildlife research, modeling advances such as the one presented here offer a promising approach to assess the complex interactions between biology, ecology, and sub-lethal anthropogenic disturbance on marine mammals.


KEY WORDS: North Atlantic right whale · Health · Fitness · Body condition · Reproduction · Bayesian model


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Cite this article as: Rolland RM, Schick RS, Pettis HM, Knowlton AR, Hamilton PK, Clark JS, Kraus SD (2016) Health of North Atlantic right whales Eubalaena glacialis over three decades: from individual health to demographic and population health trends. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 542:265-282. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps11547

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