Circumpolar southern right whale connectivity

Migratory culture in southern right whales

Southern right whales migrate thousands of kilometres between high-latitude feeding grounds and coastal winter calving/breeding grounds. Females have calves around about every three years, and the calf migrates with its mother to her preferred feeding ground, and often back to their natal wintering ground. In this way, it seems the calf can learn it’s mothers preferred migratory destinations. This behaviour seems to have shaped the pattern of maternally-inherited mitochondrial DNA of southern right whales around the world.

Assessing the impact of behaviour on connectivity

Using a combination of genomic tools, micro-chemical markers of feeding grounds and novel statistical models, we are developing a new method to test whether this migratory culture impacts connectivity in southern right whales. This is work with Oscar Gaggiotti from the University of St Andrews, and a global network of collaborators. Examples of publications to date include showing the impact of migratory culture on foraging and genetic population structure across a migratory network in Indo-Pacific right whales and on a global scale.

Integrating animal culture into conservation

Animal culture and social complexity, such as migratory culture, need to be considered in conservation management plans. The lack of recovery and recolonisation of southern right whales in much of their historic range has been used as an example of this in the United Nations Environment Program/Convention of Migratory Species (UNEP/CMS) workshop reports that led to UNEP/CMS/Resolution 11.23 that encouraged parties to the CMS to gather data on culture and social complexity for the purposes of conservation management. In addition to this policy application, this work has been highlighted in the literature as a key example of migratory culture (e.g., Whiten 2017, PNAS https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1620733114).