ESR prepress abstract  -  doi: 10.3354/esr00800

Body condition changes from natural factors and fishing gear entanglements in North Atlantic right whales Eubalaena glacialis

Heather M. Pettis*, Rosalind M. Rolland, Philip K. Hamilton, Amy R. Knowlton, Elizabeth A. Burgess, Scott D. Kraus

*Email: hpettis@neaq.org

ABSTRACT: Body condition has been correlated with survival and reproductive success in both terrestrial and marine mammals, including North Atlantic right whales Eubalaena glacialis. We used photographs of individually identified right whales to assess visual changes in body condition in reproductive females, adult males, juveniles, and entangled whales. Images from sightings of individual whales were grouped sequentially by habitat region, and each group of images was assigned a body condition score of good, fair, or poor based on the dorsal profile posterior to the blowholes. Temporally consecutive groups of images (n = 1496) of 340 individual whales were compared to investigate the frequency, direction, and minimum timeframe between changes in body condition. Changes in body condition scores of right whales were significantly influenced by group category. Lactating females and severely entangled right whales were more likely to exhibit declining body condition than other groups. Resting females were significantly more likely to improve in condition than other groups but exhibited the longest timeframe for improving condition. Young juveniles were less likely to improve in condition compared to adult males, but remained in compromised condition less frequently than older juveniles and adult males. The shortest timeframes between changing body condition scores were 11 days for declining condition and 12 days for improving condition. This study demonstrates that photographic analysis can detect rapid body condition changes and identifies groups of right whales that are particularly vulnerable to declining condition and delayed recovery from energetically taxing events.