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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 640:1-16 (2020)  -  DOI:

Population comparison of right whale body condition reveals poor state of the North Atlantic right whale

Fredrik Christiansen1, 2, 3,*, Stephen M. Dawson4, John W. Durban5, Holly Fearnbach6, Carolyn A. Miller7, Lars Bejder2,3,8, Marcela Uhart9,10, Mariano Sironi9,11,12, Peter Corkeron13, William Rayment4, Eva Leunissen4, Eashani Haria3, Rhianne Ward14, Hunter A. Warick3, Iain Kerr15, Morgan S. Lynn5, Heather M. Pettis13, Michael J. Moore16

1Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies, Høegh-Guldbergs Gade 6B, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark
2Zoophysiology, Department of Biology, Aarhus University, C.F. Møllers Alle 3, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark
3Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Ecosystems, Harry Butler Institute, Murdoch University, Murdoch, 6150 Western Australia, Australia
4Department of Marine Science, University of Otago, Dunedin 9054, New Zealand
5Southwest Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA, La Jolla, CA 92037, USA
6SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation and Research, Seattle, WA 98126, USA
7Department of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA 02543 USA
8Marine Mammal Research Program, Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii at Manoa, HI 96744, USA
9Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program, Puerto Madryn, Chubut 9120, Argentina
10School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California Davis, Davis, CA 95616, USA
11Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas, Buenos Aires 1429, Argentina
12Diversidad Biológica IV, Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Córdoba 5000, Argentina
13Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, New England Aquarium, Boston, MA 02110, USA
14Centre for Marine Science and Technology, Curtin University, Bentley, 6102 Western Australia, Australia
15Ocean Alliance, Gloucester, MA 01930, USA
16Biology Department, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA 02543, USA
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: The North Atlantic right whale Eubalaena glacialis (NARW), currently numbering <410 individuals, is on a trajectory to extinction. Although direct mortality from ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements remain the major threats to the population, reproductive failure, resulting from poor body condition and sublethal chronic entanglement stress, is believed to play a crucial role in the population decline. Using photogrammetry from unmanned aerial vehicles, we conducted the largest population assessment of right whale body condition to date, to determine if the condition of NARWs was poorer than 3 seemingly healthy (i.e. growing) populations of southern right whales E. australis (SRWs) in Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. We found that NARW juveniles, adults and lactating females all had lower body condition scores compared to the SRW populations. While some of the difference could be the result of genetic isolation and adaptations to local environmental conditions, the magnitude suggests that NARWs are in poor condition, which could be suppressing their growth, survival, age of sexual maturation and calving rates. NARW calves were found to be in good condition. Their body length, however, was strongly determined by the body condition of their mothers, suggesting that the poor condition of lactating NARW females may cause a reduction in calf growth rates. This could potentially lead to a reduction in calf survival or an increase in female calving intervals. Hence, the poor body condition of individuals within the NARW population is of major concern for its future viability.

KEY WORDS: Baleen whale · Bioenergetics · Eubalaena · Morphometrics · Photogrammetry · Unmanned aerial vehicles

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Cite this article as: Christiansen F, Dawson SM, Durban JW, Fearnbach H and others (2020) Population comparison of right whale body condition reveals poor state of the North Atlantic right whale. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 640:1-16.

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