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ESR 41:91-103 (2020)  -  DOI:

Found: a missing breeding ground for endangered western North Pacific humpback whales in the Mariana Archipelago

Marie C. Hill1,2,*, Amanda L. Bradford2, Debbie Steel3, C. Scott Baker3, Allan D. Ligon4, Adam C. Ü5, Jo Marie V. Acebes6, Olga A. Filatova7, Siri Hakala2, Nozomi Kobayashi8, Yukari Morimoto9, Haruna Okabe8, Ryosuke Okamoto10, Julie Rivers11, Takayuki Sato9, Olga V. Titova12, Robert K. Uyeyama13, Erin M. Oleson2

1Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, Research Corporation of the University of Hawai‘i, Honolulu, HI 96822, USA
2Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, NMFS, NOAA, Honolulu, HI 96818, USA
3Marine Mammal Institute, Oregon State University, Newport, OR 97365, USA
4Erin, TN 37061, USA
5Maple Falls, WA 98266, USA
6BALYENA.ORG, Barangay Pangdan, Jagna, Bohol 6308, Philippines
7Faculty of Biology, Moscow State University, Moscow 119992, Russia
8Okinawa Churashima Research Center, Okinawa Churashima Foundation, 888 Ishikawa, Motobu-cho, Okinawa 905-0206, Japan
9Ogasawara Marine Center, Everlasting Nature of Asia, Byoubudani Chichi-jima, Ogasawara-mura, Tokyo 100-2101, Japan
10Ogasawara Whale Watching Association, Chichi-jima, Ogasawara-mura, Tokyo 100-2101, Japan
11Commander US Navy Forces Europe/Africa, US Sixth Fleet, Naples, Italy
12Kamchatka Branch of Pacific Institute of Geography FEB RAS, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, 683024, Russia
13Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific, Pearl Harbor, HI 96860, USA
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae that breed in the western North Pacific (WNP) are listed as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act. Previous research in the WNP concluded that the full extent of humpback whale breeding areas is unknown. Recovering this endangered population requires identifying all associated breeding grounds and potential threats in those locations. Prior to 2015, humpback whales were known to occur in the Mariana Archipelago (within the WNP), but their population identity and habitat use there were unknown. To determine the population identity of humpback whales in the Mariana Archipelago and whether the area serves as a breeding ground for these whales, small-boat photo-identification and biopsy sampling surveys were conducted in the southern portion of the archipelago during February and March 2015-2018. A total of 14 mother-calf pairs and 27 other non-calf whales were encountered. Seven non-calves were re-sighted in multiple years, including 4 females associated with calves in one or more years. Competitive behavior was observed in multiple years. Comparisons with other North Pacific humpback whale catalogs resulted in matches to breeding (Japan and Philippines) and feeding (Russia) grounds in the WNP. DNA profiling of 28 biopsy samples identified 24 individuals (14 females, 10 males) representing 7 mitochondrial DNA haplotypes. The haplotype frequencies from the Mariana Archipelago showed the greatest identity with the Ogasawara breeding ground and Commander Islands feeding ground in the WNP. This study establishes the Mariana Archipelago as a breeding area for endangered WNP humpback whales, which should be considered in ongoing research and conservation efforts.

KEY WORDS: Humpback whales · Mariana Archipelago · Breeding ground · Photo-identification · Genetics

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Cite this article as: Hill MC, Bradford AL, Steel D, Baker CS and others (2020) Found: a missing breeding ground for endangered western North Pacific humpback whales in the Mariana Archipelago. Endang Species Res 41:91-103.

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