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MEPS prepress abstract   -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13125

Behavioural development in southern right whale calves

Mia L. K. Nielsen*, Kate R. Sprogis, Lars Bejder, Peter T. Madsen, Fredrik Christiansen

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Most baleen whales migrate to low-latitude breeding grounds during winter to give birth and nurse their calves during the early stages of growth and development. While mothers invest a large amount of energy into the early development of their calves, the time allocated to important behaviours associated with maternal care (e.g. nursing), as well as the energetics related to the rapid growth of calves, are important to quantify and understand to inform conservation measures. To investigate this, we conducted behavioural focal follows of southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) mother-calf pairs on a breeding ground in South Australia using unmanned aerial vehicles. Over the breeding season, we conducted behavioural focal follows of 51 mother-calf pairs for a total of 58 hours across 75 days. Our observations showed that the proportion of time calves spent in nursing position and the duration of potential nursing bouts increased with increasing calf size throughout the breeding season, suggesting that calves seek to maximise energy acquisition. With increasing body size, the absolute metabolic expenditure of calves increased, underlining the importance of mothers being able to maintain low energy expenditure to ensure sufficient energy available for their calves during the nursing season. Our findings from this undisturbed population demonstrate (1) the considerable changes that calves undergo during the ~3 months they spend on the breeding ground and (2) highlight the importance of these areas to be protected from anthropogenic disturbances that could disrupt the crucial maternal care, energy transfer and rapid early development of calves.