Whales with a case of wanderlust

Staying ahead of the changing seasons to avoid winter chills is a lifestyle many people would like to adopt, but this nomadic way of life is not generally associated with whales. However, according to research published recently by scientists from Flinders University, Western Australia’s Centre for Whale Research, and the Blue Whale Study in Victoria, it may be the preferred lifestyle for many of the blue whales that visit Australian waters during the summer months, to feed on the abundance of krill in waters off South Australia’s Cape Jaffa, Victoria’s Cape Otway, and Western Australia’s Rottnest Island.

Co-author Catherine Attard, from the School of Biological Sciences at Flinders University, said questions remain about whether the blue whales using Australian waters are one interbreeding population, or are multiple populations that may have adapted to different environmental conditions. Listed as an endangered species, blue whales are still recovering from 20th century whaling, and to aid their recovery the federal government has established a conservation management plan that aims to minimise human-induced threats to the species.

“Confirming their number of populations is key to appropriate management of this endangered species. It will allow pinpointing which populations may be threatened by human activities occurring in particular geographic regions,” Attard said.
Analysis of the DNA samples collected by researchers confirmed blue whales feeding in waters off South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia are all one population that appear to have adapted to a range of environments, and suggests the same population is exposed to human activities occurring across a wide range of locations.

“For example, the blue whales feeding in WA maybe impacted by human activities occurring in Victoria as they’re all part of the same population. Good conservation practices use scientific information from, for example, genetic, acoustic, and visual surveys to improve the protection of endangered species. We’ve provided one more piece of the puzzle that will continue a strong scientific basis for the conservation of blue whales,” she said.

‘From conservation genetics to conservation genomics: a genome-wide assessment of blue whales’ is available online.
ANNE LAYTON-BENNETT

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