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MEPS 330:257-268 (2007)  -  doi:10.3354/meps330257

Population structure of South Pacific humpback whales and the origin of the eastern Polynesian breeding grounds

C. Olavarría1,2, C. Scott Baker1,14,*, C. Garrigue3, M. Poole4, N. Hauser5, S. Caballero1,6, L. Flórez-González6, M. Brasseur7, J. Bannister8, J. Capella6, P. Clapham9, R. Dodemont3, M. Donoghue10, C. Jenner11, M.-N. Jenner11, D. Moro7,15, M. Oremus1,4, D. Paton12, H. Rosenbaum13, K. Russell1

1School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland 1010, New Zealand
2Centro de Estudios del Cuaternario (CEQUA), Plaza Muños Gamero 1055, Punta Arenas, Chile
3Opération Cétacés, BP 12827, 98802 Nouméa, New Caledonia
4Centre de Recherches Insulaires et Observatoire de l’Environnement, BP 1013, Moorea, French Polynesia
5Cook Islands Whale Research, PO Box 3069, Avarua, Rarotonga, Cook Islands
6Fundación Yubarta, Carrera 24F Oeste No. 3-110, Tejares de San Fernando, Cali, Colombia
7Centre for Ecosystem Management, Edith Cowan University, Joondalup, Perth, Western Australia 6027, Australia
8Western Australian Museum, Francis Street, Perth, Western Australia 6000, Australia
9AFSC/National Marine Mammal Lab, 7600 Sand Point Way NE, Building 4, Seattle, Washington 98115, USA
10External Relations Division, Department of Conservation, PO Box 10-420, Wellington 6143, New Zealand
11Centre for Whale Research (Western Australia), PO Box 1622, Fremantle, Western Australia 6959, Australia
12Southern Cross University Whale Research Centre, PO Box 157, Lismore, New South Wales 2480, Australia
13Molecular Systematics Laboratory, American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York 10024, USA
14Present address: Marine Mammal Institute, Hatfield Marine Science Center, Oregon State University, Newport, Oregon 97365, USA
15Present address: NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, University of Wales-Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 2UP, UK
*Corresponding author. Email:

ABSTRACT: Most known concentrations of humpback whales in the southern hemisphere were exploited by commercial whaling operations, first on tropical breeding grounds during the 19th century and then in Antarctic feeding areas and along migratory corridors during the 20th century. However, whaling logbooks of 19th century whalers show almost no records of catches in some regions of current concentration, notably eastern Polynesia, suggesting that humpback whales were formerly absent from these regions or that the locations of their primary concentrations were unknown to early whalers. Here we investigate the population structure of humpback whales across the South Pacific and eastern Indian oceans, with an interest in the origins of whales in eastern Polynesia, using an extensive collection of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences obtained from living whales on 6 breeding grounds: New Caledonia, Tonga, Cook Islands, eastern Polynesia (Society Islands of French Polynesia), Colombia and Western Australia. From a total of 1112 samples we sequenced 470 bp of the mtDNA control region, revealing 115 unique haplotypes identified by 71 variable sites. We found significant differentiation, at both the haplotype and nucleotide level (FST = 0.033; ΦST = 0.022), among the 6 breeding grounds and for most pair-wise comparisons. The differentiation of the eastern Polynesia humpback whales is consistent with the hypothesis of a relic subpopulation, rather than vagrancy or colonization from known neighboring breeding grounds. Regardless of their origin, it seems probable that islands of eastern Polynesia are now the primary breeding grounds for humpback whales feeding in management Area VI (170 to 120°W) of the Antarctic, as defined by the International Whaling Commission.

KEY WORDS: Megaptera novaeangliae · mtDNA · Stock structure · Oceania · Indian Ocean · Whaling

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