AUCKLAND, New Zealand The first paternity study of southern right whales has found a surprisingly high level of local breeding success for males, scientists say, which is good news for the overall genetic diversity of the species, but could create risk for local populations through in-breeding.
Results of the study, by researchers at the University of Auckland, Oregon State University and the New Zealand Department of Conservation, have just been published in the journal Molecular Ecology.
The study found that most of the right whales born near the remote sub-Antarctic islands of New Zealand were fathered by males from the same local population, according to lead author Emma Carroll, who recently completed her doctorate at the University of Auckland.
"This finding gives us information on the breeding behavior of right whales, but more importantly it shows that the New Zealand population is relatively isolated from other populations in the region, including that of neighboring Australia," Carroll said.
In other words, male southern right whales don't get around much and that kind of behavior is surprising.
"In other species of mammals, males usually disperse from their place of birth to seek new mating opportunities," said Scott Baker, associated director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, and co-author on the study. "But with right whales, it seems that local fidelity to breeding habitat is strong for both males and females."
Southern right whales were hunted to near-extinction by commercial whaling, but some populations around New Zealand and Australia have slowly started to recover. Baker, who works out of OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore., initiated the genetic study of right whales in the region in 1995 in part to assess the likelihood that they could recover.
The New Zealand right whale population had plummeted to fewer than a hundred animal
|Contact: Scott Baker|
Oregon State University