Scientists studying southern humpback whales have found that the species is essentially just staging one giant West Side Story production. The new research has found that whale populations form calving grounds, thanks to their loyalty. The research, published under the title of “First Circumpolar Assessment of Southern Humpback Whale Mitochondrial Genetic Variation at Multiple Scales and Implications for Management”, is essentially the first act of the musical, without the big rumble. In other words, thanks to the whale behaviour of staying faithful to where they came from, the Jets remain the Jets, and the Sharks remain the Sharks.
This massive study, headed by lead author Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Ocean Giants Program, used mitochondrial DNA from 3,000 different humpack whales. Mitochondrial DNA was used in the study, as it is easier to trace lineages since mitochondrial DNA is passed on straight from an individual’s mother. Thanks to the mitochondrial DNA, the researchers were able to determine that population structure is driven largely by female whales returning to where they were calved, resulting in distinct genetic populations.
Now, this gets more and more like West Side Story when you 1. Remember that whales sing. And 2. Consider how population genetics change. The study also found that high density krill feeding grounds can cause a genetic interchange- similar to how Tony and Maria met each other at the big neighbourhood dance. It’s in this mutual territory that new genetic material is brought into the pre-existing populations.
This research is super important as it helps scientists pinpoint which populations are at a higher risk of extinction due to isolated genetics, and better inform conservation efforts. It also informs us on how whale populations grow and change over time, and how best to facilitate- or at least promote- population growth and change. Cause if we can stop Act II before the funeral procession, then everyone wins.
To check out the research paper itself, go here!