ASWN Data Platform Workshop Report now available

Composit photos

In January 2018, a number of ASWN members gathered in Muscat for a workshop focusing on the final stages of development and capacity building for the creation of the ASWN regional data platform. The platform is being developed with Wild Me/Flukebook, and should be ready for wider use throughout the network within the next few weeks.

A full (illustrated!) report of the workshop is available for download here.   The report includes:

  • summaries of research  updates from several ASWN range states;
  • descriptions of the new data platform and its evolving features;
  • summaries of discussions on how to incorporate fisheries stakeholders in data collection efforts for cetacean conservation in the region.

The report will be shared as a ‘For Information’ paper at the upcoming meeting of the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee, as well as with the Scientific Council of the Convention for Migratory Species (CMS), which is following the progress of conservation efforts in relation to the CMS Concerted Action on Arabian Sea humpback whales.

Luban completes her return journey back to the coast of Oman


Map depicting Luban’s journey from the time she was fitted with a satellite tag in November 2017 through March 2018, when she returned to her original tagging  site.  Image and full animation below courtesy of Andrew Willson/Five Oceans Environmental Services/Environment Society of Oman.

Luban, the first Arabian Sea humpback whale to have been documented crossing from Oman to India, has now completed a return journey, and is once again swimming in the waters around Masriah Island where she was originally tagged in November 2017.   Luban’s tag has been transmitting signals for over 17 weeks and continues to transmit as of March 19th, 2018. Luban was first photographed and identified in the Gulf of Masirah in October 2002.   Fifteen years later, she was tagged  in the same location during a survey conducted under the auspices of the Environment Society of Oman and in collaboration with Five Oceans Environmental Services, local government entities and other partners.  After spending a few weeks engaged in small-scale movements in the Gulf of Masirah, she suddenly headed offshore and crossed the Arabian Sea to a location just off the coast of Goa, India.  She then made her way south, and spent several weeks between Trivandrum and Kanyakumari at the southernmost tip of India.

Researchers in India affiliated with the ASWN mobilized all their forces and twice rushed to the areas of coastline where Luban’s most recently transmitted signals had originated.  There they collaborated with local academics, fishermen, various local authorities and the Indian coastguard with whom they surveyed south of Cochin .  The team worked with these partners to search for Luban at sea and try to better understand what might be attracting her to the area as well as what threats she might be facing there. Researchers interviewed fishermen and learned that they frequently see and hear whales in an area called Wadge bank, known to be a rich fishing ground in the deep waters between India and Sri Lanka.

Approximately twelve weeks after being tagged, Luban began to make her way north along the west coast of India, until she headed offshore again – westward across the Arabian Sea and back to her starting point in the Gulf of Masirah. This incredible crossing reveals an important aspect of Arabian Sea humpback whale behaviour and proves the need for collaboration between Arabian Sea range states to protect this Endangered population.  However, as is the case with so much scientific research, answering one question (do Arabian Sea humpback whales move between Oman and other countries in their range?), leads to a whole host of new questions: Is Luban’s behaviour typical of the whole population – with this journey representing the first time a satellite tag has lasted long enough to document it?  Or is it only females who make these longer range movements?  Or is Luban an unusual lone explorer?  What was she looking for in India – feeding opportunities?  Mating opportunities?  Did she find them?……These questions and countless others provide good incentive for the Arabian Sea Whale Network to continue our collaboration and support each other in our efforts to learn more about these intriguing whales and how to protect them.

Stay tuned!!

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Arabian Sea humpback whales are considered Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and are featured as a Conservation Project by the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group (CSG).  Read more background about Luban’s crossing and regional collaboration on the IUCN CSG website here.  To learn more about the Environment Society of Oman’s Renaissance whale and dolphin project click here.

ASWN Data platform workshop hosted in Oman



Participants to the first day of the ASWN workshop titled  “Managing data for whale conservation in the Arabian Sea”, held in Muscat, Oman 21-24 January 2018

(Adapted from a press release issued by ESO and WWF Pakistan)

As part of its efforts to protect and conserve endangered whales, the Environment Society of Oman (ESO) hosted a workshop on Managing Data for Whale Conservation in the Arabian Sea. The workshop, organized jointly by ESO and WWF-Pakistan aimed to raise awareness of Arabian Sea humpback whales and other baleen whales, and introduce a regional data sharing platform developed specifically for the Arabian Sea Whale Network by the developers of Flukebook.

The workshop, included participants from Arabian Sea humpback whale range states, namely India, Pakistan, Iran, the UAE and Sri Lanka as well as other international partners. Presentations about research and conservation efforts from the Northwest Indian Ocean were shared, as well as exercises to enable the collection and compilation of the data under one single online platform. Arabian Sea humpback whales have been designated as an endangered sub-population on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of threatened species, and have become a global priority for research and conservation.

Suaad Al Harthi, ESO’s Programme Director, said, “The workshop primarily intends to raise awareness on the need for conservation of the Arabian Sea humpback whale and also to introduce the new Arabian Sea Whale Network regional online data platform, Flukebook.  This tool that will allow whale researchers throughout the Arabian Sea region to streamline data collected into an integrated online platform for ease of data comparison to understand the connectivity between our shared resources.”


Researchers from Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka compare photographs of humpback whale tail flukes from Pakistan and India, hoping to find evidence that whales are moving between different range states in the Arabian Sea.

The Arabian Sea Whale Network (ASWN) was established in 2015 with the aim to facilitate the regional exchange of information, research efforts and strategies. Gianna Minton, Co-coordinator of the ASWN, said, “The data platform will be an extremely useful tool for the Network, and the meeting has also provided a great opportunity for network members to re-connect, take stock of the network’s progress so far, and discuss future aims and priorities. ”

Rab Nawaz, Senior Director Programmes at WWF-Pakistan added, “The regional database would help bridge the gap from a scientific perspective and aid in improved management of cetaceans and fisheries as a whole by providing necessary information to make informed decisions. Experts at the workshop can  provide scientific advice on  mitigating threats to the endangered, threatened and protected populations of cetaceans in the Arabian Sea by developing a strategy to reduce entanglements in fishing operations, which has been made possible with financial support from the Global Environment Facility, FAO and Commons Oceans for Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction Tuna Project,” he added

This press release led to news paper coverage in Oman:

The Muscat Daily (29/01/2018)

Al Bawaba (29/01/2018)


Indus River Canyon designated as Arabian Sea’s largest MPA

Press release issued by WWF  Pakistan on January 6th, 2018:


Boundaries of the new Indus River Canyon MPA, note the overlap with recent humpback whale sightings reported by WWF’s crew-based observer programme (right) and Soviet whale catches from the 1960’s (below)

Karachi, January 6: The Ministry of Climate Change (MoCC), Government of Pakistan declared the Indus River Canyon (Exclusive Economic Zone) as a Marine Protected Area (MPA) through notification No. 9-5/2001 (BD) on Saturday. This is the second Marine Protected Area in Pakistan after Astola Island, which was notified on 15 June 2017 by the Government of Balochistan. WWF-Pakistan congratulated Syed Abu Ahmad Akif, Federal Secretary, Ministry of Climate Change for taking proactive action in declaring the Indus River Canyon Marine Protected Area (IRCMPA). The area covers 27,607 square kilometres, thus being the largest MPA of the Arabian Sea.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), to which Pakistan is a signatory, requires nations under Article 2 to designate, regulate and manage geographically defined areas (protected areas) to achieve specific conservation objectives. By declaring the Indus River Canyon Marine Protected Area, Pakistan has achieved compliance to Aichi Target 11, which requires that by 2020 at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas of a country are conserved. Astola Island MPA has an area of 400 square kilometres, thus by declaring Indus River Canyon as a Marine Protected Area Pakistan has achieved 11.2 % of Aichi Target 11 of its sea area as MPAs.

According to Muhammad Moazzam Khan, Technical Advisor (Marine Fisheries), the Indus River Canyon is a deep fissure located about 150 km southeast of Karachi in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Pakistan and southwest off the mouth of the Indus River. It extends in the offshore waters with a maximum depth of about 1,800 m. The Indus Canyon has unique physical features, with sloping margins falling steeply to a depth of 1,800 m and then entering the deep Arabian Sea Basin. The Indus Swatch is known to be rich in biodiversity including cetaceans, sharks, fish and different species of invertebrates. It is an important fishing ground especially for large sharks whose population has been dwindling due to uncontrolled fishing practices.

The Indus River Canyon MPA is home to rich mega fauna including whales and dolphins. It is reported that about 19 species of cetaceans such as baleen whales, toothed whales, and other whales and porpoises are known from the area. Some species including rough toothed dolphin (Steno bredanensis) and striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba) are only reported from this area along Pakistan’s coast. The Longman’s beaked whale (Indopacetus pacificus) has also been also been found here. This area was an important hunting ground for Russian whaling fleets, which hunted 164 Arabian humpback whales in 1966 from this area. Most of the hunted females were observed to be pregnant indicating that this area is an important breeding ground of these rare whales. In addition, this area was also an important feeding ground for these whales as most hunted whales contained sardines and pelagic shrimps in their stomachs; which indicates richness in productivity of IRCMPA. Aside from the diversified cetacean and elasmobranch (sharks) fauna, the Indus River Canyon is known to have rich fisheries resources.

Khan further pointed out that the declaration of the Indus River Canyon as an MPA ensures that the biodiversity of the area will be conserved. It will also ensure that protected, threatened and endangered species such as crustaceans, coral, mammals, sharks, turtles, whales, and mobulids will be conserved. Moreover, whale sharks, sunfish, guitarfish and seabirds will not be harvested or killed. ‘This will ensure conservation of these species whose population is drastically declining along the coast of Pakistan,’ he added.

 While, Dr. Babar Khan, Regional Head (Sindh and Balochistan), WWF-Pakistan appreciated the efforts of the Secretary, Ministry of Climate Change, Government of Pakistan in the declaration of the Indus River Canyon Marine Protected Area. WWF considers that this initiative will help protect marine ecosystems, processes, habitats, and species, which can contribute to the restoration and replenishment of resources for social, economic, and cultural enrichment.  He further added that WWF works around the world to ensure that critical habitats are protected and restored, and continue to provide multiple benefits to people and livelihoods. ‘WWF-Pakistan started to collect information about the Indus River Canyon in 2012 especially about shark, cetaceans and other animals, which helped highlight the area’s rich biodiversity and the critical need for conservation of this area, ’ he added.

ASWN Members and Soviet catches3

Catch locations of whales taken by the Soviets in 1964-66.  Note the density of yellow stars and blue circles depicting humpback and blue whales in the Indus River Canyon area off the coast of Pakistan – recently declared as an MPA.

Media coverage of this in Pakistan so far includes:

The News (08/01/2018)

The Daily Times (07/01/208)

The News (11/01/2018)

Press on both sides of the Arabian Sea for Luban, the tagged humpback whale


Luban, the female humpback whale tagged off the coast of Oman.  Her name means Frankincense in Arabic and is derived from the tree-shaped pattern in the center of her tail flukes. Photo copyright: Environment Society of Oman

Since our earlier post on December 27th, Luban, the humpback whale tagged off the coast of Oman in November 2017, has continued to attract attention featuring in press articles on both sides of the Arabian Sea.  Luban spent several days off the southwest coast of India, and ASWN member, Dipani Sutaria was able to mobilize a whole network of diverse stakeholders to actively search for the whale – including fishermen, naturalists, scientists, the Coast Guard, the Forest Department, NGOs, and customs and port authorities – spread from Gujarat down to the coasts of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Lakshadweep.  Although the team has not yet been able to find Luban, the event has generated a wave of enthusiasm and excitement that is sure to spur future awareness and support for whale conservation efforts along the entire coastline.

Recent articles in the press include:

The Wire (01/01/2018)

The Times of Oman  (o3/01/2018)

Mathrubhumi (03/01/2018)

The Hindu Daily (02/01/2018)

Desabhimani Malayalam daily (03/01/2018)

Indian Express (04/01/2018)

The Better India (05/01/2018)

The Financial Express (05/01/2018)

Luban tagging map 03-01-2018

Map showing the track of Luban, the satellite tagged humpback whale- taken from

Humpback whale tagged off the coast of Oman crosses Arabian Sea to India


Tracks of the female humpback whale, “Luban”, who was fitted with a satellite tag off the coast of Oman in November 2017.  This is the first documented movement of an Arabian Sea humpback whale away from the coast of Oman, where they have been studied since 2000.

Official press release from the Environment Society of Oman (27 December, 2017):

“Luban” an Arabian Sea Humpback Whale tagged in the Gulf of Masirah last month, has made the first recorded trans-oceanic crossing across the Arabian Sea. “Luban” is one of 14 whales that have been tagged by the Environment Society of Oman (ESO) under the Renaissance Whale and Dolphin Project, and the first tagged female.

Dedicated studies in Oman since 2000 have established that humpback whales found off the Sultanate are the only population of humpback whales in the world that do not make an annual migration between tropical and polar regions. The Environment Society of Oman started deploying satellite tags on the endangered species in 2014 to monitor the movements of this isolated population given that no other lines of scientific investigation had linked animals observed off Oman with those sighted elsewhere in the Arabian Sea, including, Iran, Pakistan and India. Until last week all of the tracks of the tagged whales only revealed movement along the Southern Coastline of Oman. However “Luban” a female tagged in the Gulf of Masirah in November 2017 started heading east across the Indian Ocean on the 12th and appeared just off the Indian coast on the 21st of December.

Andrew Willson from Five Oceans Environmental Services (5OES) in Muscat said: “The implications of this first trans-oceanic crossing reported by the tag represents a significant break-through for regional scientists who until this last week have been challenged to understand if the humpback whales observed in the Arabian sea are connected – or reside in their own discrete areas”. Willson continues “The population observed from studies off Oman since 2000 is thought to number less than 100 animals and resulted in their endangered population status under the IUCN Red list of Threatened Species. The fact that one female has now moved outside Omani waters during the known breeding season makes this theory concerning connectivity across the region more likely, and a first step towards considering humpbacks in the region as a single population unit. In the long term this question may be more fully investigated through genetic studies. It also raises the question as to whether there are more whales in the Arabian Sea than have been only observed in Omani waters, and, most importantly, where other important habitats may lie. These results provide some hope for the conservation agenda of these whales which will now certainly require regional cooperation to support further scientific investigations and their management.”

“The challenge is now to connect multiple lines of evidence using the satellite tracking, photo identification and humpback song analysis from acoustic recording units from across the region to produce Arabian Sea-wide population estimates, understand connectivity in greater detail and identify important habitats. Threats throughout the range of these whales are increasing, especially with the proliferation of coastal fishing and a threefold increase in shipping traffic in the Arabian Sea over the last 10 years – all of which provide risks of mortality from entanglement and ship strikes. Close coordination with government and private sector stakeholders is imperative for their continued survival”, comments Suaad Al Harthi, Program Director at the Environment Society of Oman.

The whale arrived off the coast of Goa after a journey of over 1500km. Over the last few days it has been heading steadily south at 5km/hr and its last known location was off the town of Mangaluru in Indian state of Karnataka. The importance of Luban’s journey has captured the interest of marine mammal researchers working off the west coast of India who have embarked on a campaign to try and locate the whale and understand how it may be using habitat off this coastline.

As part of its mission to represent Omani society in conserving the country’s natural resources, ESO remains committed to continuing its world-renowned whale and dolphin programme and applying an evidence-based conservation approach to ensure research is used to identify on-going threats that may arise from human activities.

“This is very exciting news as it takes years of research for us to start unveiling the mysteries of this population. It’s very clear that conservation of this population will need to involve both local and regional efforts. We look forward to further implications that will be revealed through this research.” said Suaad Al Harthi, Program Director at the Environment Society.

The Environment Society of Oman (ESO) through sponsorship from Renaissance and in partnership with Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC, has been tagging Arabian Sea Humpback Whales since 2014. The initiative involves close collaboration with local entities including Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Wealth, and Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC. Additional international partners this year have included Smithsonian Institution, Blue Planet Marine Ltd of New Zealand and the Slovenian Marine Mammal Society. ESO has been recognized as research pioneers within the region and is a part of the Arabian Sea Whale Network (ASWN) a group of scientists and NGOs that have formed a network which aims to address knowledge gaps in the region, share information, raise awareness and develop strategies to help to protect whales.

Humpback whale mother and calf observed off the coast of the United Arab Emirates


22406376_10159357834115696_3676908839031920028_n-e1509266195178.jpg Humpback whale mother and calf observed off the coast of the United Arab Emirates

On October 9th 2017 a number of sightings of a mother and calf humpback whale were reported off the coast of Dubai (United Arab Emirates) to the UAE Dolphin Project ( and were shared with regional researchers and the general public ( These sightings represent the first recent record of live humpback whales in the Gulf and are of great scientific interest for the conservation of the Arabian Humpback whale population. They support the hypothesis that the Gulf may be part of their natural home range and reconfirms the importance of regional collaboration on conservation efforts.
The Arabian Sea humpback whale population is considered Endangered according to the IUCN Red List ( Unlike other humpback whale populations in the world, it does not undertake seasonal migrations, and recent genetic studies proved that it has been isolated from other populations in the Indian Ocean for an estimated 70,000 years. Its numbers are dwindling, with fewer than 100 individuals estimated to be present off the coast of Oman.  As such, conservation efforts are urgently needed.

Most of what we know about the population today is based on dedicated research on whales and dolphins off the Arabian Sea coast of Oman that has been conducted by the Environment Society of Oman (ESO). However, the home range of this population is still poorly defined. A number of sightings have been recently reported off the coast of Pakistan but little is known about the presence of this species in the Gulf . A recent publication examined 8 records of whales reported in the Gulf since the 19th Century and confirmed them to be humpback whales (link). The authors proposed that humpback whales may potentially be a regular occurrence in the Gulf, rather than just strays from the Arabian Sea.

Photographs of the mother whale’s dorsal fin were compared with photographs held in Oman Humpback Whale Photo-ID Catalogue which is curated by the ESO.  The mother was not matched to any of the whales identified off the coast of Oman, but researchers hope to find better quality photographs of the sighting that might show more detail and allow a more accurate match to be conducted.

The recent sightings of humpback whales in Dubai are of enormous interest and value, as they provide additional insight into humpback whale distribution in the Northern Indian Ocean and raise further questions about the importance of the Gulf region for this extremely rare population. It is also one of the very few occasions that a mother and a calf of this species have been observed in the region in the past 20 years.  Other sightings recently shared with researchers include that of a breaching Bryde’s whale in the Gulf.  These sightings which have been made available to researchers and government agencies through social media and photos and video gathered by interested members of the public demonstrate how important the Gulf may be for whales and dolphins, and how urgent it is that more dedicated and systematic research is conducted to describe their distribution and habitat needs in light of the many human activities in the region that may affect their well-being.

A number of initiatives have recently revealed valuable information on the distribution of cetaceans in UAE. These include the UAE Dolphin Project (, the  Fujairah Whale Research Project (, which has documented sightings of species never before recorded in the UAE, such as striped dolphins and pantropical spotted dolphins, and the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (Link).  However, more information is still needed to assess the status and identity of the local populations to support their conservation.
Text contributed by Ada Natoli and Marina Antonopoulou

Pre-print manuscript published on humpback whales in the Persian Gulf

three dorsals

Humpback whales off the coast of Oman (copyright Gianna Minton/ESO)

A pre-print manuscript is available collating and describing all the known records of humpback whales in the Persian Gulf.  The paper (see full link and abstract below), is the result of a collaborative effort between many researchers working in Iran and the rest of the region, and helps to clarify previously uncertain and/or anecdotal records that can now be properly cited in future literature and used to inform future cetacean research in the area.  Download the full paper by clicking on the link below:

Dakhteh, S. M. H., S. Ranjbar, M. Moazeni, N. Mohsenian, H. Delshab, H. Moshiri, S. M. B. Nabavi & K. Van Waerebeek (2017) Humpback whales of the Persian Gulf. bioRxiv, 13.

The humpback whale has long been considered a rare straggler into the Persian Gulf, however new evidence contradicts this concept. We here critically review published and new records for Megaptera novaeangliae occurrence in the Gulf for the period 1883-2017. Of eight authenticated records (6 specimens, 2 live-sightings), seven are contemporary cases while one is a mid-Holocene specimen from UAE. An additional four are possible but unsubstantiated reports. Four regional, current, range states are confirmed, i.e. Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. Four of the five newly reported cases are from Iran’s coastal waters. We conclude that the Persian Gulf is part of the habitual range of the Arabian Sea humpback whale population, and has been since at least the mid-Holocene. It is unknown whether frequent passage occurs through the Strait of Hormuz or whether whales are (semi)resident. The low abundance of this endangered population and frequent deleterious anthropogenic events, particularly ship strikes and net entanglements, are cause for major concern. In view of its historical and taxonomic relevance, the formal description of Megaptera indica Gervais, 1883, from Iraq, now thought to be a subspecies M. novaeangliae indica, is here translated from French.

Sperm whales and blue whales sighted by fishermen off the coast of Pakistan

Blue Whale Pakistan 2017_09_11

Still image taken from video footage captured by WWF-Pakistan trained tuna fishing vessel skipper, Saeed Zaman off Churna Island, Balochistan on Monday, 11 .

We have featured a few earlier posts about the exciting reports of live whale sightings that are made by WWF-Pakistan’s crew-based observers working from fishing boats off the coast of Karachi and beyond.  As fishing resumes in the post-monsoon season, the first reports of 2017 are starting to arrive.  As of September 12th there have been 10 live whale sightings reported so far – one of them representing the first live sighting of sperm whales, and the other representing the first live sightings of blue whales ever recorded off the coast of Pakistan.

The two sperm whales were observed near Jiwani, Balochistan about 22 kilometers south of Gunz.  The fishing vessel, headed by Captain Mehar Gul, followed the two sperm whales for nearly 1.5 hours and recorded them on camera before they eventually disappeared into the sea.  The video footage was examined by WWF’s Moazzam Khan and other cetacean experts who confirmed the characteristic features and diving patterns of sperm whales.


A still image captured from video footage taken by Captain Mehar Gul who followed the two sperm whales and recorded them on camera. The image shows the characteristic dorsal fin (left) and square-shaped head and single blow-hole (right) of the two sperm whales.

The blue whale mother and calf pair were observed off Churna Island, Balochistan on Monday, 11 September 2017. WWF-Pakistan’s trained skipper, Saeed Zaman was fishing for tuna when he spotted a very large whale estimated at 17 metres in length, almost the same size of his boat.  The calf surfaced rarely so its size could not be assessed.  These whales were also captured on video, allowing confirmation of the species identification.

The presence of both of these species in Pakistani waters is not of great surprise, as they are found in the Sea of Oman and Arabian Sea coastal waters of Oman  and India and were both documented in the illegal soviet catches off the Arabian Sea coasts of Pakistan and India in the 1960’s.  There have also been some documented strandings and remains of both of these species in Pakistan over the years.

However, these recent sightings are of immense value as they demonstrate that these species are still present in Pakistani waters, and the sighting of a calf indicates that the animals may be reproducing in the area.  These sightings are remarkable for having been well documented by fishermen, at a relatively small cost compared to the costs associated with dedicated cetacean surveys.  The distribution of whale sightings that are accumulating through WWF’s unique programme should both inspire, and inform more targeted marine mammal research in the area, where surveys can be designed to target areas and times of year when fisheries-based observations were most frequent.

Items in the Pakistan media featuring these latest sightings can be found in:


The Dawn

The Daily Pakistan

Samaa TV Buzz

The International News

The Tribune


The Dawn

The News

The Tribune

New genetic comparison of all Southern Hemisphere humpback whales confirms unique status of Arabian Sea population

A recently published paper by ASWN member Howard Rosenbaum features a comparison of genetic samples collected from humpback whales off the coast of Oman with all other sampled populations in the Southern Hemisphere.  It is the largest study of its kind and helps illuminate unseen connections between populations.  The study of mitochondrial DNA confirms unique (most differentiated) population status for whales along Colombian coast and Arabian Sea.  Copied below is the text from the official press release by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
Image: Scientists used mitochondrial DNA from humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere and the Arabian Sea to better understand how populations form. CREDIT: Tim Collins/WCS

NEW YORK (July 6, 2017) – Scientists conducting the first circum-global assessment of mitochondrial DNA variation in the Southern Hemisphere’s humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) have found that whales faithfully returning to calving grounds year after year play a major role in how populations form, according to WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), the American Museum of Natural History, and a number of other contributing organizations.

The research results build on previous regional studies of genetic diversity and will help scientists to better understand how humpback whale populations evolve over time and how to best advise international management authorities.

The paper titled “First Circumpolar Assessment of Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whale Mitochondrial Genetic Variation at Multiple Scales and Implications for Management” now appears in the online version of Endangered Species Research.

“Exploring the relationships of humpback whales around the Southern Hemisphere has been a massive undertaking requiring years of work and collaboration by experts from more than a dozen countries,” said Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, Director of WCS’s Ocean Giants Program and lead author on the study. “Our findings give us insights into how fidelity to breeding and feeding destinations persist over many generations, resulting in differences between whale populations, and why some populations are more genetically differentiated from the rest. From these efforts, we are in better positions to inform actions and policies that will help protect Southern Hemisphere humpback whales across their range, as well as in the Arabian Sea.”

In the largest study of its kind to date, researchers used mitochondrial DNA microsatellites from skin samples gathered from more than 3,000 individual humpback whales across the Southern Hemisphere and the Arabian Sea to examine how whale populations are related to one another, a question that is difficult to answer with direct observations of whales in their oceanic environment.

Overall, the study’s data from mitochondrial DNA—different from nuclear DNA in that it helps scientists trace maternal lineages—reveal that population structure in humpback whales is largely driven by female whales that return annually to the same breeding grounds and by the early experience of calves that accompany their mothers on their first round-trip migration to the feeding grounds. The persistence of return to these migratory destinations over generations, is known as ‘maternally directed site fidelity’. 

The occasional genetic interchange between populations also seemed to correlate with feeding grounds with high densities of krill, places where whales from different populations are likely to move vast distances and come into contact with other populations. The study also identified specific populations—those inhabiting the eastern South Pacific off of Colombia and a non-migratory population in the Arabian Sea—as more genetically distinct and isolated from other nearby populations and perhaps in need of additional management and conservation consideration. 

“Our increased understanding of how whale populations are structured can help governments and inter-governmental organizations like the International Whaling Commission improve management decisions in the future,” said Dr. C. Scott Baker of Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute and a member of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium that contributed to the study.

The humpback whale reaches a body length of 50 feet and, as a largely coastal species, is popular with whale watch operations around the world. Before receiving international protection in 1966, humpback whales were targeted by commercial whaling vessels that nearly drove the species into extinction. This included more than 45,000 humpback whales taken illegally by the Soviet Union after World War II. Current threats to humpback whales include ship strikes, underwater noise, pollution, and entanglement in fishing gear. 
These threats are particularly pertinent to humpback whales in the Arabian Sea, a genetically isolated population numbering fewer than 100 animals and currently listed on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species as “Endangered.” WCS’s research is done in collaboration with a number of regional and local partners in the Arabian Sea working on advocacy and conservation, notably the Environment Society of Oman, among others.

The authors of the study are: Howard C. Rosenbaum of WCS and AMNH (American Museum of Natural History); Francine Kershaw of Columbia University and the Natural Resources Defense Council; Martín Mendez of WCS; Cristina Pomilla of AMNH and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, United Kingdom; Matthew S. Leslie of AMNH and the Smithsonian Institution; Ken P. Findlay of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, South Africa; Peter B. Best of the University of Pretoria, South Africa; Timothy Collins of WCS; Michel Vely of Association Megaptera, France; Marcia H. Engel of Projeto Baleia Jubarte/Instituto Baleia Jubarte, Brazil; Robert Baldwin of the Five Oceans Environmental Services LLC, Sultanate of Oman; Gianna Minton of Megaptera Marine Conservation, the Netherlands; Michael Meÿer of Oceans and Coasts, Department of Environmental Affairs, South Africa; Lilian Flórez-González of Fundación Yubarta, Colombia; M. Michael Poole of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium, Cook Islands; Nan Hauser of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium and Cook Islands Whale Research, Cook Islands; Claire Garrigue of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium (Cook Islands) and Opération Cétacés (New Caledonia); Muriel Brasseur of Edith Cowan University, Australia; John Bannister of the Western Australian Museum; Megan Anderson of Southern Cross University, Australia; Carlos Olavarría of the University of Auckland (New Zealand) and Centro de Estudios Avanzados en Zonas Aridas (Chile); and C. Scott Baker of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium (Cook Islands) and Oregon State University. 

 WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society)

MISSION: WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature. To achieve our mission, WCS, based at the Bronx Zoo, harnesses the power of its Global Conservation Program in nearly 60 nations and in all the world’s oceans and its five wildlife parks in New York City, visited by 4 million people annually. WCS combines its expertise in the field, zoos, and aquarium to achieve its conservation mission. Visit: Follow: @WCSNewsroom. For more information: 347-840-1242.