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Composition and Possible Function of Social Groupings of Southern Right Whales in South African Waters

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[We collected behavioural data and skin samples for molecular sex determination from 327 right whales (Eubalaena australis) in the coastal waters of South Africa between July and October, 1995 and 1996, as well as from 147 cows with calves-of-the-year between August and October 1996, September and November 1997. Data on group size, composition and behaviour were also available for 85 sightings of right whales south of 40°S. Although right whales are considered to be relatively non-social, only 23.3% of animals (apart from cowcalf pairs) encountered in South African waters were alone (N = 649), compared to 84.6% of animals seen south of 40°S in summer (N = 94). Of the pairs other than cows with calves encountered off South Africa, 31.0% (N = 58) were believed to be composed of cows with last-year's calves (=yearlings): 93.3% (N = 15) of these yearlings were female, suggesting a possible mechanism for female philopatry. The incidence of these mother-yearling pairs dropped sharply after early August, indicating the abrupt weaning of some calves at an age of approximately one year. Most other animals were observed either in surface-active groups (SAGs) that indulged in apparent courtship behaviour, or in non-surface-active groups (nonSAGs). SAGs tended to be larger on average than non-SAGs (4.45 animals, N = 33, range 2-10, versus 2.57 animals, N = 108, range 2-5, respectively), and males predominated, while females predominated in non-SAGs. The number of animals participating per SAG increased through the season, whereas the size of non-SAGs remained constant. Given that most conceptions in southern right whales are estimated to occur in a 118-day period around mid-July, the observed increase in group size through late August and September may be due to declining availability of receptive females. Focal animals in SAGs proved to be predominantly female (83.3%, N = 24) and non-focal animals predominantly male (85.2%, N = 61): a few groups observed late in the winter season had a male rather than female focal animal. Sighting histories of the focal females revealed that none was seen with a calf in the 17 years that preceded the surveys, but four had been seen as calves, 2-5 (average 3.75) years previously. Six females were photographed with calves from 2 to 5 years after being the focal animal in a SAG, which is consistent with the observation that most focal females in SAGs were young, pre-pubertal animals, and therefore being the focal animal did not normally result in conception. It is still unclear where (and when) conceptions occur in southern right whales, but it is hypothesised that the focal females are practising a mating strategy in which the chances of conceiving with a larger male will be maximised. As neonatal survival is partly related to size, the female will in this way protect her substantial investment in time and energy represented by the calf., We collected behavioural data and skin samples for molecular sex determination from 327 right whales (Eubalaena australis) in the coastal waters of South Africa between July and October, 1995 and 1996, as well as from 147 cows with calves-of-the-year between August and October 1996, September and November 1997. Data on group size, composition and behaviour were also available for 85 sightings of right whales south of 40°S. Although right whales are considered to be relatively non-social, only 23.3% of animals (apart from cowcalf pairs) encountered in South African waters were alone (N = 649), compared to 84.6% of animals seen south of 40°S in summer (N = 94). Of the pairs other than cows with calves encountered off South Africa, 31.0% (N = 58) were believed to be composed of cows with last-year's calves (=yearlings): 93.3% (N = 15) of these yearlings were female, suggesting a possible mechanism for female philopatry. The incidence of these mother-yearling pairs dropped sharply after early August, indicating the abrupt weaning of some calves at an age of approximately one year. Most other animals were observed either in surface-active groups (SAGs) that indulged in apparent courtship behaviour, or in non-surface-active groups (nonSAGs). SAGs tended to be larger on average than non-SAGs (4.45 animals, N = 33, range 2-10, versus 2.57 animals, N = 108, range 2-5, respectively), and males predominated, while females predominated in non-SAGs. The number of animals participating per SAG increased through the season, whereas the size of non-SAGs remained constant. Given that most conceptions in southern right whales are estimated to occur in a 118-day period around mid-July, the observed increase in group size through late August and September may be due to declining availability of receptive females. Focal animals in SAGs proved to be predominantly female (83.3%, N = 24) and non-focal animals predominantly male (85.2%, N = 61): a few groups observed late in the winter season had a male rather than female focal animal. Sighting histories of the focal females revealed that none was seen with a calf in the 17 years that preceded the surveys, but four had been seen as calves, 2-5 (average 3.75) years previously. Six females were photographed with calves from 2 to 5 years after being the focal animal in a SAG, which is consistent with the observation that most focal females in SAGs were young, pre-pubertal animals, and therefore being the focal animal did not normally result in conception. It is still unclear where (and when) conceptions occur in southern right whales, but it is hypothesised that the focal females are practising a mating strategy in which the chances of conceiving with a larger male will be maximised. As neonatal survival is partly related to size, the female will in this way protect her substantial investment in time and energy represented by the calf.]

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/content/journals/10.1163/156853903771980675
2003-11-15
2015-03-06

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