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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 692:169-183 (2022)  -  DOI:

Body condition and migration timing of east Australian humpback whales

Grace Russell1,*, Andrew Colefax2, Fredrik Christiansen3,4, George Russell1, Zoe Fowler1, Daniele Cagnazzi1

1Marine Ecology Research Centre, Southern Cross University, Military Rd, East Lismore, NSW 2480, Australia
2Sci-eye, PO Box 4202, Goonellabah, NSW 2480, Australia
3Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies, Høegh-Guldbergs Gade 6B, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark
4Zoophysiology, Department of Biology, Aarhus University, C.F. Møllers Allé 3, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: In order to exploit seasonally favourable habitats for feeding and breeding, humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae undertake one of the longest migrations in the animal kingdom. Stored energy is crucial for a successful migration, but few studies have investigated the relationship between migration timing and body condition in baleen whales. Using unmanned aerial vehicles, we quantified the body condition of east Australian humpback whales. We collected data on 513 individuals (48 calves, 166 juveniles, 251 adults, and 48 lactating females) during their northbound and southbound migrations between June and October 2020. For adults and juveniles, we explored the loss of body condition between migration direction (north versus south) as well as the relationship of migration timing (day of year) and body condition. We found a significant loss in body condition between the northbound and southbound migrations for both adults (9.8%) and juveniles (18.3%). However, migration timing did not influence body condition for either reproductive class. Cow/calf pairs were analysed using relative calf length (percentage of maternal length) as a proxy for days postpartum. We found a positive curvilinear relationship between migration timing and calf body condition. However, lactating females showed no relationship between migration timing and body condition. Whilst body condition is important for capital breeding whales, the lack of a correlation found for adults and juveniles suggests that body condition is not the main driver of migration timing from feeding or breeding grounds. However, calf body condition may be a significant factor for the migration timing of cow/calf pairs.

KEY WORDS: Megaptera novaeangliae · Baleen whale · Photogrammetry · Unmanned aerial vehicle · UAV · Fat reserves · Capital breeder

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Cite this article as: Russell G, Colefax A, Christiansen F, Russell G, Fowler Z, Cagnazzi D (2022) Body condition and migration timing of east Australian humpback whales. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 692:169-183.

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