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ESR 43:291-304 (2020)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/esr01066

Body size data collected non-invasively from drone images indicate a morphologically distinct Chilean blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) taxon

Matthew S. Leslie1,*, Colin M. Perkins-Taylor1, John W. Durban2, Michael J. Moore3, Carolyn A. Miller4, Proud Chanarat5, Paulina Bahamonde6,7, Gustavo Chiang7,8, Amy Apprill4

1Department of Biology, Swarthmore College, 500 College Ave., Swarthmore, PA 19081, USA
2Southall Environmental Associates, Inc., 9099 Soquel Drive, Suite 8, Aptos, CA 95003, USA
3Biology Department, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 266 Woods Hole Rd., MS #50, Woods Hole, MA 02543, USA
4Marine Chemistry & Geochemistry Department, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 266 Woods Hole Rd., MS #4, Woods Hole, MA 02543, USA
5WWF Thailand, Level 3, 9 Pra Dipat 10, Pra Dipat Road, Phaya Thai, Bangkok 10400, Thailand
6HUB AMBIENTAL UPLA - Centro de Estudios Avanzado, Universidad de Playa Ancha, Valparaíso 2340000, Chile
7Melimoyu Ecosystem Research Institute, Avenida Kennedy 5682, Santiago de Chile 7650720, Chile
8CAPES-UC, Center for Applied Ecology & Sustainability, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Santiago 8331150, Chile
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: The blue whale Balaenoptera musculus (Linnaeus, 1758) was the target of intense commercial whaling in the 20th century, and current populations remain drastically below pre-whaling abundances. Reducing uncertainty in subspecific taxonomy would enable targeted conservation strategies for the recovery of unique intraspecific diversity. Currently, there are 2 named blue whale subspecies in the temperate to polar Southern Hemisphere: the Antarctic blue whale B. m. intermedia and the pygmy blue whale B. m. brevicauda. These subspecies have distinct morphologies, genetics, and acoustics. In 2019, the Society for Marine Mammalogy’s Committee on Taxonomy agreed that evidence supports a third (and presently unnamed) subspecies of Southern Hemisphere blue whale subspecies, the Chilean blue whale. Whaling data indicate that the Chilean blue whale is intermediate in body length between pygmy and Antarctic blue whales. We collected body size data from blue whales in the Gulfo Corcovado, Chile, during the austral summers of 2015 and 2017 using aerial photogrammetry from a remotely controlled drone to test the hypothesis that the Chilean blue whale is morphologically distinct from other Southern Hemisphere blue whale subspecies. We found the Chilean whale to be morphologically intermediate in both overall body length and relative tail length, thereby joining other diverse data in supporting the Chilean blue whale as a unique subspecific taxon. Additional photogrammetry studies of Antarctic, pygmy, and Chilean blue whales will help examine unique morphological variation within this species of conservation concern. To our knowledge, this is the first non-invasive small drone study to test a hypothesis for systematic biology.


KEY WORDS: Aerial photogrammetry · Taxonomy · Subspecies · Whaling · Systematics · Unoccupied aerial systems · UAS


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Cite this article as: Leslie MS, Perkins-Taylor CM, Durban JW, Moore MJ and others (2020) Body size data collected non-invasively from drone images indicate a morphologically distinct Chilean blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) taxon. Endang Species Res 43:291-304. https://doi.org/10.3354/esr01066

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