Social Survival: Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) use Social Structure to Partition Ecological Niches Within Proposed Critical Habitat
June 23, 2021

Article published June 2021 by Plos One

Read the article here


Abstract: Animal culture and social bonds are relevant to wildlife conservation because they influence patterns of geography, behavior, and strategies of survival. Numerous examples of socially-driven habitat partitioning and ecological-niche specialization can be found among vertebrates, including toothed whales. But such social-ecological dynamics, described here as ‘social niche partitioning’, are not known among baleen whales, whose societies—particularly on foraging grounds—are largely perceived as unstructured and incidental to matters of habitat use and conservation. However, through 16 years of behavioral observations and photo-identifications of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) feeding within a fjord system in the Canadian Pacific (primarily within Gitga’at First Nation waters), we have documented long-term pair bonds (up to 12 years) as well as a complex societal structure, which corresponds closely to persistent patterns in feeding strategy, long-term site fidelity (extended occupancy and annual rate of return up to 75%), specific geographic preferences within the fjord system, and other forms of habitat use. Randomization tests of network congruency and clustering algorithms were used to test for overlap in patterns of social structure and habitat use, which confirmed the occurrence of social niche partitioning on the feeding grounds of this baleen whale species. In addition, we document the extensive practice of group bubble net feeding in Pacific Canada. This coordinated feeding behavior was found to strongly mediate the social structure and habitat use within this humpback whale society. Additionally, during our 2004–2019 study, we observed a shift in social network structure in 2010–2012, which corresponded with environmental and demographic shifts including a sudden decline in the population’s calving rate. Our findings indicate that the social lives of humpback whales, and perhaps baleen whales generally, are more complex than previously supposed and should be a primary consideration in the assessment of potential impacts to important habitat.

Read more scientific publications

Apr 15 2024

Collecting baleen whale blow samples by drone: A minimally intrusive tool for conservation genetics

Collecting exhaled breath condensate, or respiratory ‘blow’ samples, from baleen whales using an unoccupied aerial system (UAS) plays a vital role in informing...
May 25 2023

Ship-Strike Forecast and Mitigation for Whales in Gitga’at First Nation Territory

As marine traffic increases globally, ship strikes have emerged as a primary threat to many baleen whale populations.

Jul 13 2022

A Simulation-Based Tool for Predicting Whale-Vessel Encounter Rates

To understand the threat of ship strikes for marine predators such as whales, quantitative tools are needed that measure specific impacts without ignoring the many...
Sep 03 2021

Fin whales of the Great Bear Rainforest: Balaenoptera physalus velifera in a Canadian Pacific fjord system

Fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) are widely considered an offshore and oceanic species, but certain populations also use coastal areas and semi-enclosed seas.

Aug 05 2021

CatRlog: A Photo-Identification Project Management System Based in R

Photo-identification (photo-ID) databases can comprise versatile troves of information for well-studied animal populations and, when organized well and curated...
Jun 15 2021

Acoustic tracking of fin whales: Habitat use and movement patterns within a Canadian Pacific fjord system

Fin whale 20 Hz calls were detected, localized, and tracked using a 10 km aperture network of three acoustic receivers deployed for 11 months in a Pacific Canadian...
Jan 15 2020

Calving rate decline in humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) of northern British Columbia, Canada

The population dynamics of large mammals are characterized by highly variable and relatively poor juvenile survival.

Dec 31 2019

Automated localization of whales in coastal fjords

Localization and tracking of vocalizing marine mammals are powerful tools for understanding and mitigating the impacts of anthropogenic stressors such as vessel noise...
Nov 24 2019

Determining marine mammal detection functions for a stationary land-based survey site

The shore-based survey is a common, non-invasive, and low-cost method in marine mammal science, but its scientific applications are currently limited.

Mar 13 2017

‘Whale wave’: shifting strategies structure the complex use of critical fjord habitat by humpbacks

A decade of visual surveys (2005-2014) revealed that humpbacks Megaptera novaeangliae occupy a temperate fjord system in British Columbia.