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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 687:173-194 (2022)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps14009

Estimating the cost of growth in southern right whales from drone photogrammetry data and long-term sighting histories

Fredrik Christiansen1,2,3,*, Lars Bejder2,3,4, Stephen Burnell5,7, Rhianne Ward6, Claire Charlton6

1Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies, Høegh-Guldbergs Gade 6B, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark
2Zoophysiology, Department of Biology, Aarhus University, C.F. Møllers Allé 3, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark
3Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Ecosystems, Harry Butler Institute, Murdoch University, Murdoch 6150, Western Australia, Australia
4Marine Mammal Research Program, Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Kaneohe, HI 96744, USA
5Eubalaena Pty. Ltd, Cottesloe 6011, Western Australia, Australia
6Centre for Marine Science and Technology, Curtin University, Bentley 6102, Western Australia, Australia
7Present address: Flourishing Oceans, Minderoo Foundation, Nedlands 6009, Western Australia, Australia
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Animal body size and growth patterns play important roles in shaping the life history of species. Baleen whales include the largest animals on the planet, with somatic growth costs expected to be substantial. We used unmanned aerial vehicle photogrammetry and long-term individual sighting histories from photo identification (1991-2019) to estimate the cost of somatic growth for southern right whales (SRWs) Eubalaena australis. A Richards length-at-age growth model was developed, based on 161 calves, 20 yearlings, 1 juvenile and 23 adults, ranging in age from newborn to 27 yr. Predicted lengths were 4.7 m at birth, 12.5 m at minimum age of first parturition (6 yr) and an asymptotic length of 14.3 m. A volume-at-age curve was estimated from the body volume versus length relationship, and converted to a mass-at-age curve, using data on body tissue composition of North Pacific right whales E. japonica (n = 13). The energetic cost of growth was estimated using published estimates of tissue lipid and protein concentrations. The cost of growth for SRWs (in MJ d-1) was 2112 at birth, 544 at 4 mo, 314 at 1 yr (~weaning age), 108 at 5 yr (minimum age of sexual maturity), 51.5 at 10 yr and 5.2 at 30 yr. The cumulative cost to age 30 was 764.3 GJ, but varied widely (458-995 GJ) depending on the tissue energy content. Our estimates represent a healthy SRW population, and provide a baseline to investigate individual and population level impacts of anthropogenic disturbance (including climate change).


KEY WORDS: Eubalaena australis · Baleen whales · Body size · Body length · Body mass · Bioenergetics · Growth models · Morphometrics · Life histories · Unmanned aerial vehicle


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Cite this article as: Christiansen F, Bejder L, Burnell S, Ward R, Charlton C (2022) Estimating the cost of growth in southern right whales from drone photogrammetry data and long-term sighting histories. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 687:173-194. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps14009

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