Seasonal gain in body condition of foraging humpback whales along the Western Antarctic Peninsula

Journal Article (Journal Article)

Most baleen whales are capital breeders that use stored energy acquired on foraging grounds to finance the costs of migration and reproduction on breeding grounds. Body condition reflects past foraging success and can act as a proxy for individual fitness. Hence, monitoring the seasonal gain in body condition of baleen whales while on the foraging grounds can inform how marine mammals support the costs of migration, growth, and reproduction, as well as the nutritional health of the overall population. Here, we use photogrammetry from drone-based imagery to examine how the body condition of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) changed over the foraging season (November to June) along the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) from 2017 to 2019. This population (IWC stock G) is recovering from past whaling and is growing rapidly, providing an opportunity to study how whales store energy in a prey-rich environment. We used a body area index (BAI) to estimate changes in body condition and applied a Bayesian approach to incorporate measurement uncertainty associated with different drone types used for data collection. We used biopsy samples to determine sex and pregnancy status, and a length-based maturity classification to assign reproductive classes (n = 228; calves = 31, juveniles = 82, lactating females = 31, mature males = 12, mature unknown sex = 56, non-pregnant females = 12, pregnant females = 3, pregnant & lactating females = 1). Average BAI increased linearly over the feeding season for each reproductive class. Lactating females had lower BAI compared to other mature whales late in the season, reflecting the high energetic costs of nursing a calf. Mature males and non-pregnant females had the highest BAI values. Calves and juvenile whales exhibited an increase in BAI but not structural size (body length) over the feeding season. The body length of lactating mothers was positively correlated with the body length of their calves, but no relationship was observed between the BAI of mothers and their calves. Our study establishes a baseline for seasonal changes in the body condition for this humpback whale population, which can help monitor future impacts of disturbance and climate change.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Bierlich, KC; Hewitt, J; Schick, RS; Pallin, L; Dale, J; Friedlaender, AS; Christiansen, F; Sprogis, KR; Dawn, AH; Bird, CN; Larsen, GD; Nichols, R; Shero, MR; Goldbogen, J; Read, AJ; Johnston, DW

Published Date

  • November 21, 2022

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 9 /

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 2296-7745

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.3389/fmars.2022.1036860

Citation Source

  • Scopus