Genome and satellite technology reveal recovery rates and impacts of climate change on southern right whales

University of Auckland tohorā research team, Department of Conservation permit DJI

Emma Carroll

After close to a decade of globe-spanning effort, the genome of the southern right whale has been released this week, giving us deeper insights into the histories and recovery of whale populations across the southern hemisphere.

Up to 150,000 southern right whales were killed between 1790 and 1980. This whaling drove the global population from perhaps 100,000 to as few as 500 whales in 1920. A century on, we estimate there are 12,000 southern right whales globally. It’s a remarkable conservation success story, but one facing new challenges.

A southern right whale calf breaches in the subantarctic Auckland Islands.
A southern right whale calf breaches in the subantarctic Auckland Islands.
University of Auckland tohorā research team, Author provided

The genome represents a record of the different impacts a species has faced. With statistical models we can use genomic information to reconstruct historical population trajectories and patterns of how species interacted and diverged.

We can then link that information with historical habitat and climate patterns. This look back into the past provides insights into how species might respond to future changes. Work on penguins and polar bears has already shown this.

But we also have a new and surprising short-term perspective on the population of whales breeding in the subantarctic Auckland Islands group — Maungahuka, 450km south of New Zealand.

Spying on whales via satellite

Known as tohorā in New Zealand, southern right whales once wintered in the bays and inlets of the North and South Islands of Aotearoa, where they gave birth and socialised. Today, the main nursery ground for this population is Port Ross, in the subantarctic Auckland Islands.

Adult whales socialise at both the Auckland and Campbell Islands during the austral winter. Together these subantarctic islands are internationally recognised as an important marine mammal area.

In August 2020, I led a University of Auckland and Cawthron Institute expedition to the Auckland Islands. We collected small skin samples for genetic and chemical analysis and placed satellite tags on six tohorā. These tags allowed us to follow their migrations to offshore feeding grounds.

It matters where tohorā feed and how their populations recover from whaling because the species is recognised as a sentinel for climate change throughout the Southern Hemisphere. They are what we describe as “capital” breeders — they fast during the breeding season in wintering grounds like the Auckland Islands, living off fat reserves gained in offshore feeding grounds.

Females need a lot in the “bank” because their calves need a lot of energy. At 4-5m at birth, these calves can grow up to a metre a month. This investment costs the mother 25% of her size over the first few months of her calf’s life. It’s no surprise that calf growth depends on the mother being in good condition.

Read more:
I measure whales with drones to find out if they’re fat enough to breed

Females can only breed again once they’ve regained their fat capital. Studies in the South Atlantic show wintering grounds in Brazil and Argentina produce more calves when prey is more abundant, or environmental conditions suggest it should be.

The first step in understanding the relationship between recovery and prey in New Zealand is to identify where and on what tohorā feed. The potential feeding areas for our New Zealand population could cover roughly a third of the Southern Ocean. That’s why we turn to technologies like satellite tags to help us understand where the whales are going and how they get there.

Where tohorā go

So far, all tracked whales have migrated west; away from the historical whaling grounds to the east near the Chatham Islands. As they left the Auckland Islands, two whales visited other oceanic islands — skirting around Macquarie Island and visiting Campbell Island.

It also seems one whale (Bill or Wiremu, identified as male using genetic analysis of his skin sample) may have reached his feeding grounds, likely at the subtropical convergence. The clue is in the pattern of his tracks: rather than the continuous straight line of a whale migrating, it shows the doughnuts of a whale that has found a prey patch.

Migratory track of southern right whale Bill/Wiremu, where the convoluted track could indicate foraging behaviour.

The subtropical convergence is an area of the ocean where temperature and salinity can change rapidly, and this can aggregate whale prey. Two whales we tracked offshore from the Auckland Islands in 2009 visited the subtropical convergence, but hundreds of kilometres to the east of Bill’s current location.

As Bill and his compatriots migrate, we’ve begun analysing data that will tell us about the recovery of tohorā in the past decade. The most recent population size estimate we have is from 2009, when there were about 2,000 whales.

Read more:
Humans threaten the Antarctic Peninsula’s fragile ecosystem. A marine protected area is long overdue

I am using genomic markers to learn about the kin relationships and, in doing so, the population’s size and growth rate. Think of it like this. Everybody has two parents and if you have a small population, say a small town, you are more likely to find those parents than if you have a big population, say a city.

This nifty statistical trick is known as the “close kin” approach to estimating population size. It relies on detailed understanding of the kin relationships of the whales — something we have only really been able to do recently using new genomic sequencing technology.

Global effort to understand climate change impacts

Globally, southern right whales in South Africa and Argentina have bred less often over the past decade, leading to a lower population growth rate in Argentina.

Concern over this slowdown in recovery has prompted researchers from around the world to work together to understand the relationship between climate change, foraging ecology and recovery of southern right whales as part of the International Whaling Commission Southern Ocean Research Partnership.

The genome helps by giving us that long view of how the whales responded to climate fluctuations in the past, while satellite tracking gives us the short view of how they are responding on a day-to-day basis. Both will help us understand the future of these amazing creatures.The Conversation

Emma Carroll, Rutherford Discovery Fellow

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s right whales are recovering after whaling bans, but there are still worrying signs

Rob Harcourt

Every July southern right whales arrive in the sheltered inlets of southern Australia to breed. These endangered whales were severely depleted by whaling, with up to 150,000 killed between 1790 and 1980.

After more than a century of protection they are recovering well in parts of their range. Off south west Australia their numbers are increasing at nearly 7% each year. The population found in the New Zealand sub-Antarctic is also looking robust. But the population found in south east Australia and mainland New Zealand does not seem to be faring so well.

In a study published today in Nature Scientific Reports we looked at the migration routes of these whales, which may help explain why they have been so slow to recover.

Where do the whales go?

Southern right whales migrate between their breeding grounds off the coast of Australia and New Zealand and feeding grounds in the Southern Ocean.

For a long time we have suspected that these whales show fidelity to their breeding grounds, as individuals return each year to popular tourist sites such as The Head of the Bight in South Australia and to Warrnambool in Victoria. But where exactly they feed has remained a mystery.

For more than 20 years we have studied these whales using small skin biopsies. We looked at genetic evidence and analysis of stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen. Carbon isotopes provide an indication of where animals are feeding. Combined with genetic evidence, this provides clear insights into who is feeding where, and in part with whom.

We found evidence of genetic structure at both ends of the migratory network of southern right whales. That is animals showed high fidelity and bred within the same populations returning to familiar calving sites in Australia and New Zealand over many years. These animals also showed distinct separation when feeding in the southern ocean.

This suggests that whales that follow different migration routes belong to different subsets of the population, because if whales were moving between routes we would see more genetic mixing.

Migratory culture

Our data suggest that these whales pass on their migration routes culturally – particularly from mothers to their daughters.

Fidelity to migratory routes is widespread in the animal kingdom, from eels and the Sargasso Sea, through Pacific Salmon returning to spawn in only a single river catchment, the great migrations of the African savanna, to the annual migrations of the great whales.

In the marine environment returning to the place of your birth can have an enormous influence on population structure, and is important for assessing stocks of commercial species such as Pacific Salmon, as well as in conserving endangered species.

For long-lived animals, passing on knowledge of migration routes may be more successful than leaving offspring to fend for themselves. If behaviour is socially transmitted and then shared within subsets of a population, it is called culture.

Therefore, in species with long periods of parental care the transmission of parental preferences for breeding or feeding grounds to offspring is termed migratory culture.

Threatened by loyalty

Migratory culture could help explain why some populations of southern right whales are recovering and others aren’t.

When animals that show fidelity to a particular migratory destination are lost, the “memory” of that migratory destination is also lost. The effect is exacerbated when animals are lost across the migratory network, as was the case with whaling. These losses due to rapid reductions in populations can mean that safe havens may remain lost to a population for generations.

Migratory traditions can be a big advantage to long-lived animals by providing young with ready access to proven feeding areas and safe breeding habitat. But in a rapidly-changing environment, such as hat we face today, previously productive feeding grounds may become less productive.

Loyalty to their migration routes might then mean these animals are pushed back to the brink of extinction.

The Conversation

Rob Harcourt, Professor of Marine Ecology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sydney: Southern Right Whale Gives Birth in Harbour

The link below is to an article reporting on the birth of a Southern Right Whale in Sydney Harbour.

For more visit: