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A new genetic study has revealed that populations of humpback whales in the oceans of the North Pacific, North Atlantic and Southern Hemisphere are much more distinct from each other than previously thought, and should be recognised as separate subspecies. Understanding how connected these populations are has important implications for the recovery of these charismatic animals that were once devastated by hunting.
The team, led by scientists from the British Antarctic Survey and Oregon State University, analysed the largest and most comprehensive genetic dataset so far compiled for this iconic species. The findings, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B this week, show that humpback whales of the North Pacific, North Atlantic and Southern Hemisphere are on independent evolutionary trajectories.
Known for their amazing acrobatics, humpback whales annually undertake the longest migration of any mammal between their winter breeding grounds and summer feeding grounds. Although they travel vast distances, it appears their populations do not cross paths. Lead author, Dr Jennifer Jackson of the British Antarctic Survey explains:
“Despite seasonal migrations of more than 16,000 km return, humpback whale populations are actually more isolated from one another than we thought. Their populations appear separated by warm equatorial waters that they rarely cross”.
For more information see: Global diversity and oceanic divergence of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) by: Jennifer A. Jackson, Debbie J. Steel, P. Beerli, Bradley C. Congdon, Carlos Olavarría, Matthew S. Leslie, Cristina Pomilla, Howard Rosenbaum and C. Scott Baker, is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B on Wednesday 21 May 2014.