Central Oregon Coast Study Could Impact Endangered Whale Status
(Newport, Oregon) – Researchers out of the central Oregon coast's Hatfield Marine Science Center recently finished a comprehensive genetic study of humpback whale populations in the northern Pacific Ocean areas and have documented five very different populations. The study could impact the endangered status of some humpback populations just as the species is being downlisted, possibly showing them to still be vulnerable. Photo courtesy of Jan Straley, NOAA.
“Though humpback whales are found in all oceans of the world, the North Pacific humpback whales should probably be considered a sub-species at an ocean-basin level – based on genetic isolation of these populations on an evolutionary time scale,” said Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center and lead author on the paper.
How management authorities respond to the study identifying the distinct North Pacific humpback populations remains to be seen, Baker said, but the situation “underscores the complexity of studying and managing marine mammals on a global scale.”
How each of these populations recover from the brink of extinction may differ greatly from group to group.
Humpback whales are listed as endangered in the United States under the Endangered Species Act, but had recently been downlisted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on a global level. However, two more population segments were added to the IUCN's list as endangered, and at least one discovered by the Hatfield may be part of the list as well.
Some other remarkable finds were also made by the study, showing how these populations appear to have their own “culture” in a sense when it comes to migration paths, breeding areas and feeding areas.
Baker said that unlike most terrestrial species, populations of whales within oceans are not isolated by geographic barriers. Instead, migration routes, feeding grounds and breeding areas are thought to be passed down from mother to calf, persisting throughout a lifetime and from one generation to the next.
“We think this fidelity to migratory destinations is cultural, not genetic,” Baker said. “It is this culture that isolates whales, leading to genetic differentiation – and ultimately, the five distinct populations identified in the North Pacific.”
The study was supported by the National Fisheries and Wildlife Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, and the Marine Mammal Endowment at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon.
Results of the study are being published this week in the journal Marine Ecology – Progress Series. It was supported by the National Fisheries and Wildlife Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, and the Marine Mammal Endowment at Oregon State University.
It involved the examination of nearly 2,200 tissue biopsy samples collected from humpbacks in ten different feeding regions over the course of three years.
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