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Leaner leviathans: Body condition variation in a critically endangered whale population

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The role of environmental limitation and density-dependent regulation in shaping populations is debated in ecology. Populations at low densities may offer an unobstructed view of basic environmental and physiological interactions that impact individual fitness and thus population productivity. The energy reserves of an organism are reflected in its body condition, a measure linking individual fitness and the environment. From 1997 to 2007, we monitored the critically endangered western gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) population on its primary summer feeding ground off the northeastern coast of Sakhalin Island, Russia. This effort resulted in a large data set of photo-identification images from 5,007 sightings of 168 individual whales that we used to visually assess western gray whale body condition. We quantified temporal variation in the resulting 1,539 monthly body condition determinations with respect to observations of reproductive status and sex. Western gray whale body condition varied annually, and we identified years of significantly better (2004) and worse (1999, 2006, and 2007) body condition. This study is the 1st to track the within-season body condition of individual whales. Body condition improved significantly as the summer progressed, although results suggest that not all whales replenish their energy stores by the end of the season. The body condition of lactating females was significantly worse than that of other whales at all times and was most often determined to be compromised. The body condition of their weaning calves exhibited no temporal variation and was consistently good. It is possible lactating females provide an energetic buffer to their offspring at the expense of their own body condition and future reproductive success. Findings from the analysis establish a foundation for quantifying links between western gray whale body condition, demographic parameters, and environmental conditions; and provide a baseline for monitoring individual and population condition of an ecosystem sentinel species in a changing environment. Overall, this study highlights the presence of density-independent environmental and physiological mechanisms that affect the abundance and growth of populations.
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Leaner leviathans: body condition variation in a critically endangered
whale population
AMANDA L. BRADFORD,* DAVID W. WELLER,ANDRE
´E. PUNT,YULIA V. IVASHCHENKO,ALEXANDER M. BURDIN,
GLENN R. VANBLARICOM,AND ROBERT L. BROWNELL,JR.
School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, Box 355020, Seattle, WA 98195-5020, USA (ALB, AEP, GRV)
Protected Resources Division, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 3333 North Torrey Pines Court, La Jolla, CA 92037-1022, USA (DWW)
Seastar Scientific, Dzerzhinskogo Street, 5-30, Yaroslavl 150033, Russia (YVI)
Kamchatka Branch of Pacific Institute of Geography, Far East Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Prospect
Rybakov, 19-a, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky 683024, Russia (AMB)
Southwest Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, 1352 Lighthouse Avenue, Pacific Grove, CA 93950-2097, USA (RLB)
Present address of ALB: Protected Species Division, Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, National Marine
Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1601 Kapiolani Boulevard, Suite 1000, Honolulu,
HI 96814-4700, USA
* Correspondent: alb992@u.washington.edu
The role of environmental limitation and density-dependent regulation in shaping populations is debated in
ecology. Populations at low densities may offer an unobstructed view of basic environmental and physiological
interactions that impact individual fitness and thus population productivity. The energy reserves of an organism
are reflected in its body condition, a measure linking individual fitness and the environment. From 1997 to
2007, we monitored the critically endangered western gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) population on its
primary summer feeding ground off the northeastern coast of Sakhalin Island, Russia. This effort resulted in a
large data set of photo-identification images from 5,007 sightings of 168 individual whales that we used to
visually assess western gray whale body condition. We quantified temporal variation in the resulting 1,539
monthly body condition determinations with respect to observations of reproductive status and sex. Western
gray whale body condition varied annually, and we identified years of significantly better (2004) and worse
(1999, 2006, and 2007) body condition. This study is the 1st to track the within-season body condition of
individual whales. Body condition improved significantly as the summer progressed, although results suggest
that not all whales replenish their energy stores by the end of the season. The body condition of lactating
females was significantly worse than that of other whales at all times and was most often determined to be
compromised. The body condition of their weaning calves exhibited no temporal variation and was consistently
good. It is possible lactating females provide an energetic buffer to their offspring at the expense of their own
body condition and future reproductive success. Findings from the analysis establish a foundation for
quantifying links between western gray whale body condition, demographic parameters, and environmental
conditions; and provide a baseline for monitoring individual and population condition of an ecosystem sentinel
species in a changing environment. Overall, this study highlights the presence of density-independent
environmental and physiological mechanisms that affect the abundance and growth of populations.
Key words: density-independence, energy reserves, environmental variability, fitness, Okhotsk Sea, ordinal logistic
regression, photo-identification, western gray whales
E2012 American Society of Mammalogists
DOI: 10.1644/11-MAMM-A-091.1
The degree to which populations are limited by the
environment and regulated by their density is a topic of much
ecological interest and debate (e.g., Berryman 2004; White
2004). Recent mammalian studies have focused on the www.mammalogy.org
Journal of Mammalogy, 93(1):251–266, 2012
251
complex interactions between extrinsic and intrinsic factors
that produce observed population dynamics, particularly in
populations at high densities (e.g., Chamaille´-Jammes et al.
2008). Small or increasing populations are generally not
discussed in this context, although by extension they are often
used as a non–resource-limited reference in comparative
population studies (e.g., Monson et al. 2000). However, it is
clear that populations of all sizes are subject to environmental
and physiological conditions and constraints that impose
physical limits to population productivity. Populations at low
densities may reveal these properties in a more fundamental
form and merit investigation in this regard.
Depending on their metabolic needs and limitations,
individuals in populations employ a variety of life-history
tactics to contend with environmental variability. In pursuing
these strategies, all organisms face some level of temporal
reductions in body mass (Robbins 1993). Variation in stored
energy is a response to current nutritional inputs and demands
or to environmental cues regarding future conditions (Batzli
and Esseks 1992). The dependency on energy reserves for
reproduction varies across taxa, with animals that rely on
endogenous energy stores to sustain reproduction during a
period of fasting (i.e., capital breeders) representing 1 extreme
(Thomas 1990). The body condition of an organism reflects its
energy reserves relative to its size and can serve as a link to its
ecological fitness. In that respect, the influence of a variety of
environmental and physiological factors can be evaluated
using a single metric, assuming an appropriate measure of
body condition is identified (Speakman 2001).
Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) are extant only in the
North Pacific Ocean, where they exist as geographically and
genetically differentiated eastern and western populations
(Lang 2010; Weller et al. 2002). Like most other baleen
whales, gray whales feed in seasonally productive waters at
high latitudes, while using warm waters at low latitudes to
calve and breed. The eastern gray whale population migrates
from winter breeding grounds off Baja California, Mexico,
to summer feeding grounds that are encompassed primarily
by the Bering and Chukchi seas. Eastern gray whales are
potentially nearing the current carrying capacity of their
environment at a population size of approximately 20,000
whales (Punt and Wade 2010). The western gray whale
population returns to summer feeding grounds located
principally in the Okhotsk Sea from unknown breeding
grounds suspected to be along the southern coast of China
(Wang 1984). Western gray whales are critically endangered
(International Union for Conservation of Nature 2010) and
number ,150 individuals (Bradford et al. 2008).
Gray whales are in a negative energy balance after leaving
the feeding grounds, relying on stored energy acquired during
roughly 6 months spent foraging at high latitudes (Rice and
Wolman 1971). These reserves are of particular importance to
reproductive females, who have the potential to calve every
other winter. After a 13-month gestation period, pregnant
females give birth to a single calf, which is weaned during the
subsequent feeding season (Rice 1983). In baleen whales, as in
other mammals, energy stores are predominantly composed of
fat (Young 1976), although energy reserves also can include
other components such as carbohydrates and proteins
(Atkinson and Ramsay 1995; Robbins 1993). Collectively,
these sources of energy are catabolized from a variety of
tissues, including blubber, muscle, skeleton, and viscera
(Lockyer 1984; Worthy and Lavigne 1987).
Following a pilot effort in 1995 (Brownell et al. 1997), a
collaborative Russia–United States research program was
established in 1997 to conduct individual monitoring of
western gray whales using photo-identification and genetic
techniques (Weller et al. 1999, 2002). This project takes place
annually during summer months on the primary feeding
ground of the population, which is located in coastal waters off
northeastern Sakhalin Island, Russia, in the western Okhotsk
Sea. This feeding ground is utilized by western gray whales of
both sexes and multiple age classes, including postparturient
females and their weaning calves, and presumably offers
access to most, if not all, of the western gray whale population
(Bradford et al. 2006, 2008).
Several demographic parameters estimated over the course
of this investigation have suggested that western gray whales
are not realizing theorized levels of maximum productivity.
The number of actively reproducing females is small,
postweaning calf survival is low, the calf sex ratio is male-
biased, and calving intervals are prolonged and variable
(Bradford et al. 2006, 2008; Brownell and Weller 2002;
Weller et al. 2002). Undoubtedly, there are anthropogenic
sources of mortality to consider relative to these findings
(Bradford et al. 2009; Weller et al. 2008), and small
population effects cannot be ignored. However, concurrent
with these demographic studies were visual observations of
individuals with notable reductions in body mass (Brownell
and Weller 2001), which appeared to vary in magnitude and
over time, indicating that if western gray whale body condition
could be appropriately measured, environmental links to
individual fitness and thus population productivity could be
explored.
Common methods for evaluating body condition in
terrestrial mammals are generally impractical to apply to
free-ranging whales. Standard techniques such as direct
carcass analysis (e.g., Reynolds and Kunz 2001), mass-based
morphometric indexes (e.g., Jakob et al. 1996), and electrical
conductivity measurement (e.g., Wirsing et al. 2002) require
capturing and handling individuals, lethally in the case of
direct analysis. Given the migratory life cycle of most baleen
whales, seasonal changes in body condition are expected, with
whales reflecting more depleted energy stores while fasting
than while feeding (Lockyer 2007). In fact, studies of whales
killed in whaling operations have demonstrated that relative
body mass increases as the feeding season progresses (e.g.,
Lockyer 1987). Although these studies showed that blubber
thickness also can increase accordingly, particularly in
pregnant females, lipid stores captured in other body
components (e.g., muscle tissue) also are sensitive to changes
in nutritional status and may better explain observed seasonal
252 JOURNAL OF MAMMALOGY Vol. 93, No. 1
variations in body mass (Lockyer 1987; Vı
´kingsson 1990).
Further, there are many biases associated with measurements
of blubber, suggesting that blubber thickness may not be the
most reliable index of whale body condition (Aguilar et al.
2007).
In this regard, Rice and Wolman (1971) found that girth is a
better indicator of body condition than blubber thickness in
eastern gray whales and concluded that weight loss occurs
primarily because of utilization of internal fat depots as
opposed to blubber. Therefore, metrics of girth should
theoretically be able to reflect the nutritional status of
individuals. Indeed, aerial photogrammetry of eastern gray
whales found that changes in body condition associated with
fasting periods and reproductive status were reliably detected
from measurements of width relative to length (Perryman and
Lynn 2002). It is thus reasonable to assume such changes in
body mass could be observed sidelong during boat-based
photo-identification efforts and consequently recorded in the
photographic record.
This assumption formed the premise of a recent evaluation
of body condition in free-ranging North Atlantic right whales
(Eubalaena glacialis). In a retrospective analysis of photo-
identification data, Pettis et al. (2004) visually assessed the
relative amount of subcutaneous fat in the postcranial area
of whales in this population. This index accurately tracked
known changes in body condition associated with the
reproductive cycle (Pettis et al. 2004). Follow-up studies
demonstrated that the visual assessment of body condition
captured general trends in estimates of girth and blubber
thickness (Angell 2006). Thus, this type of assessment
represents a viable method of measuring right whale body
condition, which was the main premise of the work of Pettis
et al. (2004). The authors did not consider temporal variation
in individual body condition.
The western gray whale photo-identification project pro-
duced a large data set of digital, film, and video images suitable
for a visual assessment of western gray whale body condition.
Therefore, our objectives in the present study were to develop a
protocol to measure the body condition of western gray whales
from photo-identification images; and to quantify temporal
variation in the resulting determinations of body condition with
respect to observations of reproductive status and sex.
Specifically, we evaluated the relative amount of subcutaneous
fat for individual whales and tested for interannual and within-
season differences, with a particular interest in lactating females
and their weaning calves and in males and females. Our
overarching aim was to establish a baseline for monitoring
western gray whale body condition that can ultimately be used
to detect demographic and environmental linkages, in antici-
pation of future ecosystem changes.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
Whale sighting data.—From 1995 to 2007, during months
ranging from June to October, we conducted 336 small-boat
photo-identification surveys off the northeastern coast of
Sakhalin Island, Russia. Weller et al. (1999) contains detailed
information about the study area and the photo-identification
data collection and analysis protocols. We obtained biopsy
samples (for genetic studies, including sex determination and
relatedness analyses) in coordination with photo-identification
efforts, following animal care guidelines in accordance with
the American Society of Mammalogists (Sikes et al. 2011).
These surveys produced 5,159 sightings of 169 individual
western gray whales, which include 24 known reproductive
females, 72 whales 1st identified as calves, and 142
individuals of known sex (59 females and 83 males). We
considered a given female to be reproductive overall and
lactating for the field season when genetic or behavioral
observations, or both, linked her to a calf of the year. A
sighting is represented by at least 1 high-quality photo-
identification image, although we usually collected several
photo and simultaneous video images during each sighting.
We acquired 14 additional sightings of 12 of the 169
individuals during a survey of an ephemeral feeding area
approximately 60 km southeast of the nearshore feeding area.
In total, we examined more than 34,000 film and digital
images and 38 h of digital video from 5,173 sightings of 169
photo-identified individuals to assess western gray whale body
condition. However, we utilized only data collected during
July–September of 1997–2007 in the statistical analysis of
body condition, so that we could make temporal comparisons.
The analysis subset consisted of 5,007 sightings of 168
individual whales, which include the same individual
composition as above less 1 male 1st identified as a calf.
Body condition assessment.—We expanded the protocol
developed for North Atlantic right whales (Pettis et al. 2004)
to assess the body condition of western gray whales. We
measured western gray whale body condition using a similar
scoring approach, but along with the postcranial area, we
evaluated 2 additional body regions also regularly captured
during photo-identification. That is, we visually assessed the
relative amount of subcutaneous fat in 3 body regions: the
postcranial area, the scapular region, and the lateral flanks.
Apparent reductions in body mass in these regions lead to 3
diagnostic features, respectively: a postcranial depression, a
subdermal protrusion of the scapula, and a depression along
the dorsal aspect of the lateral flanks (Brownell and Weller
2001). Although the underlying physiological mechanisms are
not well understood, whales exhibiting these features are
considered to be in compromised body condition (Brownell
and Weller 2001).
We examined all available digital, film, and video images of
individual western gray whales in the assessment of body
condition. Specifically, for each survey sighting of a whale,
we assigned a numerical score to the 3 body regions of
interest, with higher values corresponding to better condition
(Figs. 1–3). We scored the postcranial condition on a 3-point
scale (Fig. 1), but scored the scapular and lateral flank
conditions on a 2-point scale (Figs. 2 and 3) because
distinguishing varying degrees of these characteristics would
have been highly subjective. If we could not assign a reliable
February 2012 BRADFORD ET AL.—VARIATION IN GRAY WHALE BODY CONDITION 253
FIG.1.—Example images depicting the 3-point scale we used to assess the postcranial condition of western gray whales (Eschrichtius
robustus). We assigned a) a score of 3 to whales with a flat or rounded back; b) a score of 2 to whales with a slight to moderate postcranial
depression, indicated by an arrow; and c) a score of 1 to whales with a significant postcranial depression such that a pronounced ‘‘hump’’ is
visible posterior to the blowholes, noted by large and small arrows, respectively.
FIG.2.—Example images showing the 2-point scale we utilized to evaluate the scapular condition of western gray whales (Eschrichtius
robustus). We assigned a) a score of 2 to whales with rounded sides over the shoulder blades; and b) a score of 1 to whales with a subdermal
protrusion of the scapula, identified by an arrow.
254 JOURNAL OF MAMMALOGY Vol. 93, No. 1
numerical score to a body region (e.g., we did not take images
of the body region or whale body position confounded body
region condition), we coded the region as X. One analyst
(ALB) performed all scoring to maintain consistency in the
image review (Pettis et al. 2004). However, we demonstrated
through an interrater agreement study that the western gray
whale body region scoring protocol can be used by more than
1 trained researcher to achieve comparable results (Appendix I).
To maximize the use of irregular sightings with incomplete
image coverage of the 3 body regions, we collapsed the scored
data for each sighting into monthly composites of postcranial (P),
scapular (S), and lateral flank (L) condition for each whale. We
conducted sensitivity analyses to confirm that month was an
appropriate and feasible scale at which to aggregate these data
(Appendixes II–IV). We then needed a scheme to classify these
composites to produce overall categorical determinations of
individual body condition (i.e., good, fair, or poor) for use in the
statistical analysis. Given that the postcranial condition is
presently the standard visual measure of cetacean body condition
(e.g., Pettis et al. 2004), we assumed this region to be most
indicative of overall body condition. That is, we classified a
composite of 3SL as good body condition, 2SL as fair body
condition, and 1SL as poor body condition, unless we scored both
the scapular and lateral flank conditions as poor. In those cases
(i.e., composites of 311 and 211), we brought the body condition
rating down a level (i.e., to fair and poor, respectively). Any other
combination after the postcranial condition score (e.g., 3XX or
21X) did not change the rating suggested by the postcranial
condition. If we coded the postcranial condition as X, then we
considered the body condition as unknown and unusable for
analysis. In summary, the possible composites within each body
condition category are:
Ngood—322, 321, 32X, 312, 31X, 3X2, 3X1, 3XX;
Nfair—311, 222, 221, 22X, 212, 21X, 2X2, 2X1, 2XX;
Npoor—211, 122, 121, 12X, 112, 111, 11X, 1X2, 1X1, 1XX;
and
Nunknown—X22, X21, X2X, X12, X11, X1X, XX2, XX1,
XXX.
This classification system is a conservative rating approach
that allows composites with X entries to be incorporated
into the 3 categories of known body condition and therefore
utilized in the analysis.
Note that we use the body condition descriptors good, fair,
and poor to refer to the amount of energy reserves available
to a given whale and not to imply a prognosis of survival.
Further, a determination of poor body condition does not
equate to starvation, although if starving individuals were a
part of this study, presumably we would have classified
their body condition as poor. Instead, we regard whales
in compromised body condition (i.e., fair or poor) as not
completely buffered against the full suite of demands
associated with their extreme life history, which could lead
to a behavioral, physiological, or reproductive response.
Statistical analysis.—We employed multinomial logistic
regression for ordinal responses to analyze variation in
western gray whale body condition. Specifically, we used
the proportional odds model (e.g., Agresti 2002) to evaluate
the effect of 4 categorical variables (year, month, reproductive
class, and sex) on body condition as a multinomial response
(good, fair, or poor), where year is 1997–2007; month is July,
August, or September; reproductive class is lactating female,
calf, or other whale; and sex is male, female, or unknown. We
specified these temporal and demographic covariates given
their relevance to the study objectives. Further, preliminary
univariable analyses suggested that these variables are each
significant predictors of body condition. We utilized likeli-
hood ratio tests to determine the most-parsimonious model,
which we found by singly dropping each of the covariates
FIG.3.—Example images showing the 2-point scale we employed to rate the lateral flank condition of western gray whales (Eschrichtius
robustus). We assigned a) a score of 2 to whales with rounded sides from the postcranial area to the start of the caudal peduncle; and b) a score of
1 to whales with a depression along the dorsal aspect of the lateral flanks, indicated by an arrow.
February 2012 BRADFORD ET AL.—VARIATION IN GRAY WHALE BODY CONDITION 255
from the full model and, if required, from selected reduced
models until we identified the most-parsimonious set of
covariates. Individual whales were represented by a body
condition category in as many months as the individual
was sighted. To account for the correlation between these
observations, we modeled individual whales as normally
distributed random effects in the analysis, which we conducted
using the Ordinal Package (Christensen 2010) within the
program R (R Development Core Team 2010).
RESULTS
We collapsed the 5,007 survey sightings between July and
September of 1997–2007 into 1,539 monthly body region
condition composites of 168 photo-identified western gray
whales. The distribution of composites within each body
condition category is: good—658 (42.8%), fair—317 (20.6%),
poor—158 (10.3%), and unknown—406 (26.4%). Fig. 4
shows the frequencies of the possible composites within each
body condition category. Within each category of known body
condition, most of the composites are comprised of non-X
entries (i.e., 322, 321, 312, 311, 222, 221, 212, 211, 122, 121,
112, and 111): good—583 (88.6%), fair—243 (76.7%), and
poor—136 (86.1%). More information on the scored and
collapsed body region data that led to the monthly deter-
minations of body condition is available in Appendixes
II–IV. Whales with known body condition determinations
are represented by 165 individuals, with a median of 5
determinations per whale (range 1–24 determinations).
Table 1 summarizes the distribution of these individuals and
observations within the analytical framework.
Likelihood ratio tests indicated that sex is not a significant
predictor of body condition in the presence of the covariates
year, month, and reproductive class (Table 2). Because there
was not support for dropping additional covariates, we
selected the mixed model incorporating year, month, and
class as the most parsimonious. When fit to the body condition
determinations, this model revealed that, compared to the
reference year of 1997, whales were in significantly better
body condition in 2004 and in significantly worse body
condition in 1999, 2006, and 2007 (Table 3). Moreover,
whales were in significantly better body condition in August
and September than in July, with the magnitude of the
predictor coefficients pointing toward an improvement in body
condition as the season progressed. Finally, lactating females
were in significantly worse body condition relative to other
whales, while weaning calves that were in significantly better
condition than other whales.
The estimated predictor coefficients in Table 3 can be
exponentiated and expressed as odds ratios. For example, a
specific whale had about 3 times the odds of being in better
body condition in 2004 (all other factors being equal) than in
FIG.4.—Frequencies of monthly body region condition composites
of those possible within each of the 4 body condition categories
(good, fair, poor, and unknown) for 1,539 composites of 168 western
gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus). Frequencies are shown accord-
ing to reproductive class (lactating females, calves, and other whales),
with individual whales represented in as many months as the
individual was sighted.
TABLE 1.—Summary of observations used in the quantitative analysis of western gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) body condition.
Individual whales are represented once in the annual numbers of whales in known body condition and within each month, but are represented
in as many months and years as the individual was sighted. Further, individual whales can be represented multiple times in the annual
numbers within each reproductive class and sex category, depending on the number of known monthly body condition determinations for the
individual. BC 5body condition; LF 5lactating female.
Year
Whales in
known BC
Month Reproductive class Sex
Jul. Aug. Sep. LF Calf Other Male Female Unknown
1997 37 16 24 22 5 5 52 29 28 5
1998 48 33 28 22 16 15 52 35 41 7
1999 64 42 54 35 4 7 120 70 46 15
2000 54 7 50 38 3 5 87 58 34 3
2001 63 42 53 46 16 17 108 78 59 4
2002 70 38 47 50 16 21 98 68 62 5
2003 65 16 50 41 18 20 69 56 51 0
2004 55 22 50 1 11 13 49 31 37 5
2005 67 18 41 36 9 8 78 48 42 5
2006 61 33 45 0 7 5 66 41 28 9
2007 75 32 62 39 18 21 94 77 51 5
256 JOURNAL OF MAMMALOGY Vol. 93, No. 1
1997, had approximately 14 times the odds of being in better
body condition in September than in July, and had roughly 124
times the odds of being in worse body condition when a lactating
female than when classified as an other whale. However, when
considering effect size, the calf coefficient and associated values
merit particular attention. Of the 137 calf determinations of
known body condition, 136 (99.3%) of them are classified as
good. Thus, this covariate level perfectly predicts the outcome,
which can create numerical problems when fitting a logistic
regression model, typically manifested as a lack of convergence,
a large estimated coefficient, and a large estimated standard
error (Hosmer and Lemeshow 2000). In the present case, the
model converged and although the estimated coefficient is large,
the resulting standard error is not large enough to lead to a
paradoxically small Wald test statistic (Hauck and Donner
1977). Further, compared to the original model formulation (see
Table 2), eliminating the calf covariate level (residual degrees
of freedom [d.f.]51,117, log-likelihood 52765.565) was not
supported by a likelihood ratio test (chi-square distributed
likelihood ratio statistic [LR]
1
5106.794, P,0.001). Also,
completely removing calf observations from the statistical
analysis did not produce appreciable differences in the estimates
corresponding to the other covariates. Therefore, we retained the
calf observations and covariate for illustrative purposes, but the
resulting effect size should be interpreted with caution.
The predicted probabilities of an average whale (i.e., a
random effect of zero) being in good, fair, and poor body
condition according to various combinations of the covariates
are shown in Fig. 5. The random effect estimates conformed
to a normal distribution as intended. A random effects model
allowed for the appropriate statistical treatment of the
correlation between observations of individual whales.
Additionally, compared to the same covariate model without
random effects (d.f. 51,117, log-likelihood 52798.273), the
random effects model (see Table 2) provided a significantly
better fit to the data (LR
1
5172.209, P,0.001).
DISCUSSION
Photo-identification of gray whales involves the comparison
of natural and unique pigmentation patterns and generally
focuses on the dorsal flank region of individual whales
(Darling 1984; Weller et al. 1999). Thus, this body region
was the primary target during western gray whale photo-
identification efforts, but was not used to measure individual
body condition, which explains the large number of unknown
body condition determinations in the current retrospective
assessment (Fig. 4). However, it is important to note that these
unknown determinations are random with respect to the
examined covariates.
Although the western gray whale body condition assess-
ment protocol allows composites with X entries to be
incorporated into the known body condition categories, most
of the resulting known body condition determinations are
composed of non-X entries (Fig. 4). These non-X composites
offer 2 potential insights into patterns of weight loss in gray
whales. First, there is individual variation in where on the
body declines in mass occur, as evidenced by the frequencies
of the various types of non-X composites (Fig. 4). Second,
despite this variation, there is evidence that of the 3 body
regions evaluated, the postcranial area is the most sensitive to
reductions in subcutaneous fat. That is, the relatively high
frequency of the composite 222 compared to frequencies of
composites with normal postcranial and compromised scap-
ular and lateral flank conditions (i.e., 321 and 312) suggests
that discernible mass loss occurs 1st in the postcranial area and
then in the other 2 body regions (Fig. 4), although unknown
differences in the ease of mass loss detection between body
regions also may have contributed to the perceived order of
mass loss.
The decision to differentiate between the body condition
categories of good, fair, and poor for western gray whales was
primarily dictated by our ability to visually discern 3 levels of
TABLE 2.—Results of comparing the full proportional odds mixed
model of western gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) body condition
to reduced models formed by singly dropping each of the 4
covariates. We used likelihood ratio tests to compare the full model
(top row) with each reduced model as a means to evaluate the
significance (P,0.05) of the dropped covariate. The selected model
is shown in boldface type. d.f. 5degrees of freedom; LR 5likelihood
ratio statistic (chi-square distributed).
Model predictors
Residual
d.f.
Log-
likelihood LR LR d.f. P-value
Year +month +class +sex 1,114 2710.991
Month +class +sex 1,124 2750.663 79.342 10 ,0.001
Year +class +sex 1,116 2778.171 134.360 2 ,0.001
Year +month +sex 1,116 2892.766 363.549 2 ,0.001
Year
+
month
+
class 1,116 2712.168 2.354 2 0.308
TABLE 3.—Maximum-likelihood estimates resulting from fitting
the proportional odds mixed model to determinations of western gray
whale (Eschrichtius robustus) body condition, given year, month, and
reproductive class. The first 2 rows represent model intercepts and the
rest predictor coefficients. Note that year 51997, month 5July, and
class 5other whale served as the reference categories. Significant
predictor coefficients (P,0.05) are shown in boldface type. SE 5
standard error; LF 5lactating female.
Variable Estimate SE Wald zP-value
Yfair 2.736 0.413 6.618 ,0.001
Ygood 20.243 0.395 20.616 0.538
Year 51998 0.647 0.477 1.358 0.175
Year =1999 21.071 0.404 22.655 0.008
Year 52000 20.511 0.435 21.175 0.240
Year 52001 20.568 0.411 21.381 0.167
Year 52002 0.094 0.427 0.219 0.826
Year 52003 0.116 0.450 0.258 0.796
Year =2004 1.128 0.507 2.225 0.026
Year 52005 20.526 0.441 21.192 0.233
Year =2006 20.971 0.447 22.171 0.030
Year =2007 21.706 0.422 24.044
,
0.001
Month =Aug. 1.235 0.188 6.553
,
0.001
Month =Sep. 2.615 0.246 10.622
,
0.001
Class =LF 24.821 0.365 213.195
,
0.001
Class =calf 5.694 1.073 5.309
,
0.001
February 2012 BRADFORD ET AL.—VARIATION IN GRAY WHALE BODY CONDITION 257
postcranial condition. However, during analyses associated
with such categorical assessments, it may ultimately be
difficult to statistically reconcile the resulting body condition
determinations with particular covariates of interest, which
may require restructuring the analysis or even revising the
protocol. In the present case, the calf covariate level perfectly
predicted the outcome of good body condition, which could
have led to numerical problems when fitting the logistic
regression model to the data set as a whole. Although this
situation did not occur, the estimated effect size should
nevertheless be considered unreliable. To a lesser degree,
there also is reduced contrast in the body condition
determinations for lactating females, with 121 (98.4%)of
the 123 determinations of known body condition classified as
fair or poor. If model instability had ensued, it might have
been necessary to treat lactating females separately, perhaps
in a binomial instead of a multinomial context. In general,
flexibility in the treatment of covariate and response levels
may be needed when statistically analyzing visual determina-
tions of body condition.
Gray whale calves are weaned at approximately 7 months of
age (Rice and Wolman 1971), a relatively short period of
time given their body size, implying they rely on maternally
derived energy for some period of time postweaning (Costa
and Williams 1999). The comparatively good body condition
of western gray whale calves (Table 3) is in line with findings
from previous cetacean studies (e.g., Angell 2006) and reflects
the significant energetic investment and high milk fat provided
to them by lactating females (Rice and Wolman 1971). The
consistently good body condition of calves (Fig. 5b) suggests
that differences in maternal condition and environmental
factors affecting calf development are not expressed in the
stored energy of weaning calves, at least as measured by the
present protocol. These differences may instead be manifested
in the overall size of calves as opposed to their body condition.
Perryman and Lynn (2002) found a positive correlation
between the length of northbound migrating eastern gray
whale females and the length of their calves, although the
authors did not compare calf length to a metric more
indicative of the body condition of associated females.
Maternal and environmental effects also likely influence the
growth of calves in ways that are not immediately apparent
(Bernardo 1996), but that have long-term fitness consequences
(Lindstro¨m 1999).
Still, the lack of variation in the body condition of calves is
striking, particularly in light of the pronounced variation
exhibited by noncalves (Figs. 5a and 5c). Perhaps reproduc-
tive females that are not nutritionally prepared to wean a calf
with complete energy reserves remain anestrous or lose their
calves prematurely (Lockyer 1984; Rice and Wolman 1971).
FIG.5.—Predicted monthly probabilities of an average (i.e., a random effect of zero) western gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) being in
good, fair, and poor body condition during 1997 as compared to years in which body condition was significantly better (2004) and significantly
worse (1999, 2007; 2006 not shown) for a a) lactating female (LF), b) calf, and c) other whale.
258 JOURNAL OF MAMMALOGY Vol. 93, No. 1
Calving intervals of eastern and western gray whales are
variable (Bradford et al. 2008; Jones 1990), and there is
evidence of high neonatal mortality in eastern gray whales
(Swartz and Jones 1983). Further, it is conceivable that
lactating females are able to energetically buffer their calves
from adverse environmental conditions, although such an
energy transfer would come at the expense of the body
condition and future reproductive success of the female
(Lindstro¨m 1999).
The high energetic costs of mammalian lactation (Young
1976) are particularly considerable for whales, who are fasting
during much of this period (Lockyer 1984). As expected, the
body condition of lactating female western gray whales was
relatively worse than that of other whales (Table 3) and was
most often determined to be compromised (Figs. 4 and 5a).
Although there was some degree of monthly improvement
in the body condition of lactating females, probabilities of
complete within-season recovery were to a greater or less
extent low in all years (Fig. 5a), indicating that postparturient
females usually have not fully replenished their energy stores
by the time of the next breeding opportunity (i.e., the
subsequent winter).
There is a well-established correlation between body
condition and reproductive success in female mammals
(Loudon et al. 1983), with maternal body condition potentially
impacting all aspects of the reproductive process, including
the timing of reproduction (Hickling et al. 1991), probability
of pregnancy (Cook et al. 2004), embryonic absorption
(Belonje and van Niekerk 1975), fetal growth (Lockyer
2007), offspring mass (Atkinson and Ramsay 1995), offspring
survival (Cameron et al. 1993), and progeny sex ratio
(Wauters et al. 1995). Although the relationship between
body condition and reproduction is not well understood for
whales, a few basic scenarios have been proposed. It is
generally presumed that if a reproductive female has
insufficient energy reserves, she may either fail to ovulate,
fail to conceive, fail to give birth, or fail to nurse.
Alternatively, she may direct her own maintenance reserves
into producing and weaning a calf (Lockyer 1986). Further,
these mechanisms are thought to be regulated by environ-
mental conditions, such that ovulation and conception rates are
likely linked to 1 feeding season and abortion and calving
rates to the next, although a series of good or bad years could
mitigate or confound these connections (Lockyer 1987).
Given that western gray whale calving intervals do vary
(Bradford et al. 2008), it is possible that some form of
environmental regulation through maternal body condition is
occurring (Brownell and Weller 2002). There are conflicting
ideas about the primary method of nutritional control in gray
whale reproduction. Rice and Wolman (1971) suggested
that females are likely to suppress ovulation when in poor
condition and unable to carry a pregnancy to term. However,
Perryman et al. (2002) found that calf production in eastern
gray whales was positively correlated with the length of the
previous feeding season (as determined by ice cover), with no
significant correlation when a 1-year lag was introduced,
implying that existing pregnancies were affected, rather than
ovulations or conceptions. The latter scenario is consistent
with the differential costs of pregnancy in whales, which only
become substantial during the last one-half or one-third of
gestation (Lockyer 1984). Other baleen whale studies point to
the importance of the feeding season prior to (e.g., Lockyer
1986) and during (e.g., Lockyer 2007) pregnancy, but it is
unlikely that these links are mutually exclusive, particularly
when interactions between years and other factors (e.g.,
previous calf production or maternal age) are considered.
Regardless, it appears that western gray whale females do
fully invest in their calves at a certain point, potentially even
providing environmental amelioration. As the energetic costs
of lactation are much greater than those of pregnancy (Millar
1977), there are likely to be consequences of this investment
for female reproductive success.
Sex is not an important predictor of western gray whale
body condition given the incorporation of reproductive class
in the mixed model (Table 2), suggesting that lactating
females were responsible for the significant differences
detected during preliminary univariable analyses. However,
the presence of pregnant females and juveniles of both sexes
in the sample might have confounded the sex comparison. A
variety of measures (e.g., blubber thickness, body girth, and
lipid content) have shown that pregnant female whales have
the highest energy stores relative to other whales (e.g.,
Lockyer 1986). With the exception of lactating females,
juvenile whales generally have the lowest fat reserves (e.g.,
´kingsson 1990), although some studies have found juvenile
males to be leaner than all other whales (e.g., Lockyer 1987).
Additionally, comparing the body condition of males and
females at the same time may be inherently problematic
because these whales may have been on the feeding ground for
varying durations, since there appears to be some degree of
temporal segregation by age, sex, and reproductive status in
migrating gray whales (Rice and Wolman 1971). In any case,
energy deposits are clearly needed by male and female gray
whales for maintenance activities during the fasting period and
by females to sustain substantial reproductive demands.
The monthly improvement in the body condition of western
gray whales (Table 3; Fig. 5) demonstrates the significance of
the feeding period for accumulating energy stores and is
consistent with findings from previous whale research (e.g.,
Lockyer 1987; Perryman and Lynn 2002; Rice and Wolman
1971; Vı
´kingsson 1990), although the current study is the 1st
to monitor the within-season body condition of individual
whales. The predicted probability that a nonlactating, noncalf
(i.e., other whale) was in good condition at the end of the field
season was generally, but not always, very high (Fig. 5c).
Given patterns of seasonal sea-ice formation in the Okhotsk
Sea, western gray whales presumably have access to the
northeastern Sakhalin feeding area for at least 2 months
beyond the monitoring period of the present assessment.
Whales have been observed in the study area as late as mid-
November, but in considerably reduced numbers, suggesting
that most whales have left the region by that time (Blokhin
February 2012 BRADFORD ET AL.—VARIATION IN GRAY WHALE BODY CONDITION 259
2004). Therefore, in addition to lactating females, other
noncalf western gray whales have the potential to leave the
study area with less than optimal energy stores.
The body condition of western gray whales varied annually,
but was significantly better in 2004 and significantly worse
in 1999, 2006, and 2007 (Table 3). Eastern gray whales
experienced a high-mortality event in 1999 and 2000 that
may have been caused by reductions in prey productivity
brought on by short- and long-term climate effects in the
North Pacific (Le Boeuf et al. 2000; Moore et al. 2001),
leading Brownell and Weller (2001) to suggest an oceano-
graphic link between the eastern gray whale mortality event
and concurrent observations of western gray whales in
relatively worse body condition. However, assuming males
are most reflective of annual environmental conditions (Pettis
et al. 2004), a post hoc analysis of the body condition of
western gray whale noncalf males revealed that only the 2004
and 2007 year effects were maintained. This difference
resulting from the exclusion of females implicates the
interactions that can occur between the reproductive cycle
and environmental variability (Lockyer 1987). Overall, the
characteristics (e.g., prey quantity and quality and ice cover)
of the years identified as significant in this study have not been
evaluated and warrant additional attention.
Interannual variation in the energy reserves of whales has
been previously detected and correlated with both prey
availability (e.g., Ichii et al. 1998) and whale fecundity (e.g.,
Lockyer 1986). In that regard, a primary way environmental
and associated foraging conditions affect population demog-
raphy is by influencing maternal body condition and
subsequent reproductive success (Le Boeuf and Crocker
2005), as has been demonstrated for North Atlantic right
whales (Greene et al. 2003). The body condition of lactating
female western gray whales was estimated to vary by year
(Fig. 5a). However, the body condition of reproductive female
whales likely exhibits complex and asynchronous dynamics
that are a function of previous calf production and environ-
mental factors. Thus, interannual variation in the body
condition of reproductive female western gray whales merits
a more thorough investigation.
Although a recent development in whale research, the use of
visual body condition assessment methods is not new to
animal ecology (e.g., Riney 1960; Robinson 1960). Visual
determinations of body condition have been shown to
successfully correlate with quantitative measures of energy
stores for a variety of mammalian species (Kistner et al. 1980;
Prestrud and Pond 2003; Stephenson et al. 2002; Stirling et al.
2008), including whales (Angell 2006), an important valida-
tion for any index of body condition (Schulte-Hostedde et al.
2005). Further, in cases such as free-ranging baleen whales,
where a variety of components in a wide range of tissues
reflect long-term energy reserves that cannot be comprehen-
sively quantified, a more holistic assessment of relative body
mass might offer some advantage over enumerating a specific
measure of energy storage. That is, because energy is
deposited in a number of forms and locales, which can vary
according to age, sex, and reproductive status (Lockyer 1987),
it could be limiting and potentially problematic to focus on
1 measurable attribute (e.g., blubber thickness—Aguilar et al.
2007).
In our study, differences in the relative amount of
subcutaneous fat were detected collectively for the postcranial
area, scapular region, and lateral flanks and presumed to
reflect individual body condition. It is possible that body mass
in these areas does not in fact correspond to important energy
reserves, a problematic lack of correlation prevalent in the use
of body condition indexes (Hayes and Shonkwiler 2001).
However, findings of the analysis, particularly the compro-
mised body condition of lactating females and the monthly
improvement in noncalf body condition (Table 3; Figs. 5a and
5c), are consistent with well-supported patterns of mammalian
and baleen whale life history, suggesting that the present
assessment protocol can indeed measure western gray whale
body condition. Results of research associated with whaling
operations have indicated that for some balaenopterid species,
the most substantial and variable, and therefore most useful,
site of lipid storage is the dorsal tail region (e.g., Lockyer et al.
1985). Thus, the anterior body regions evaluated here may not
represent the most sensitive or temporally precise gauge of
internal fat depots, although it is also plausible that mass loss
by body region may vary by species. Nevertheless, in addition
to exhibiting meaningful variation, these areas are routinely
documented during photo-identification efforts, providing an
informative and practical means to infer body condition.
This assessment quantified temporal variation in western
gray whale body condition given confirmed observations of
reproductive class and sex. We suggest the next steps in the
examination of western gray whale body condition are to
evaluate the effect of inferred reproductive states (e.g.,
pregnant, resting, or immature) on body condition, and to
explore the relationship between body condition and calving
interval, calf sex ratio, and other life-history parameters; and
between body condition and environmental indicators of food
availability and access, such as indexes of sea-ice and
oceanographic conditions. Assessing the body condition of
free-ranging eastern gray whales also is recommended because
it would allow for interpopulation comparisons, as well as
illustrate the impact of density feedback mechanisms on the
relationship between gray whale body condition and environ-
mental variability. Finally, dead eastern gray whales strand in
some numbers each year throughout their range (Le Boeuf et
al. 2000). An anatomical and biochemical evaluation of these
whales could be used to better understand subcutaneous fat
deposition in the postcranial, scapular, lateral flank, and other
body regions of gray whales.
The endogenous energy stores of mammalian capital
breeders such as baleen whales allow individuals to sustain
reproduction as well as survive periods of poor feeding,
although trade-offs are involved (Lockyer 2007). Our study
highlights linkages between the environmental conditions,
physiological constraints, and reproductive costs of western
gray whales. Further, we introduce a robust method for
260 JOURNAL OF MAMMALOGY Vol. 93, No. 1
monitoring an aspect of individual condition, which will
facilitate both following and elucidating population responses
to a changing environment. Given that gray whales can track
productivity changes at local scales and ecosystem alterations
at ocean-basin scales, they have been referred to as bio-
indicators of environmental variability (Moore et al. 2003) and
ecosystem sentinels (Moore and Huntington 2008), respec-
tively. Incorporating the role of individual fitness is important
for achieving a mechanistic view of these paradigms.
Fowler (1984) reported that cetacean populations are
regulated through density-dependent changes in reproduction
and survival that are a function of food resources. Others have
argued that populations are not regulated by density-
dependence but are limited by environmental capacity (e.g.,
White 2004) or that the 2 perspectives are indistinguishable
(e.g., Berryman 2004). Whether ecologists will agree on
regulation or limitation as the driver of population dynamics,
it is clear that more effort is needed to identify ecological
factors and mechanisms that affect individuals and ultimately
population abundance and growth rate (Krebs 2002). The
observed variation in western gray whale body condition
indicates fundamental environmental and physiological inter-
actions that will influence the productivity of the population
regardless of its size, although a consideration of size is
critical in a conservation context. That is, environmental
variability can increase extinction risk in small populations
(Stacey and Taper 1992), as well as compound the impact of
demographic stochasticity and other small-population effects
that may be contributing to the dynamics of the critically
endangered western gray whale population.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
We thank the many individuals who have provided field assistance
over the years, especially S. Blokhin, H. W. Kim, A. Lang,
S. Rickards, and G. Tsidulko. Participants in the 2006 NOAA Large
Whale Health Assessment Workshop contributed valuable feedback
on the body condition assessment protocol. N. Ellis, P. Heagerty, and
R. Christensen offered useful advice on the statistical analysis. The
edits of W. Perrin and 2 anonymous reviewers improved the
manuscript. Support for ALB was funded in part by a grant from
the Washington Sea Grant Program, University of Washington,
pursuant to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Graduate Fellowship Program in Population Dynamics and Marine
Resource Economics. The views expressed herein are those of the
authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration or any of its subagencies. Support
and funding for the Russia–United States western gray whale research
project were provided (in alphabetical order) by Alaska SeaLife
Center, Exxon Neftegas Limited, the International Fund for Animal
Welfare, the International Whaling Commission, the United States
Marine Mammal Commission, the Marine Mammal Research
Program at Texas A&M University at Galveston, the National Fish
and Wildlife Foundation, the United States National Marine Fisheries
Service, Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, Sakhalin Energy
Investment Company, the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at
the University of Washington, the United States Environmental
Protection Agency, and the Washington Cooperative Fish and
Wildlife Research Unit. The project was conducted as part of the
Marine Mammal Project under Area V: Protection of Nature and the
Organization of Reserves within the United States–Russia Agreement
on Cooperation in the Field of Environmental Protection.
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APPENDIX I
Report of an interrater agreement study that evaluated the
comparability of results produced by 2 trained researchers using the
body region scoring protocol developed to assess the body condition
of western gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus).
We conducted an interrater agreement study to assess if the body
region scoring protocol used to determine western gray whale body
condition can be utilized by more than 1 qualified researcher to
achieve similar results. To this end, a 2nd trained analyst (YVI)
reviewed images from a subset of 300 randomly selected sightings
and scored the 3 body regions of interest (i.e., postcranial area,
scapular region, and lateral flanks) for the 98 individual whales
represented in the subset. We then compared scored data from the 2
researchers in 2 separate tests of interrater agreement for each of the 3
body regions. First, we evaluated the decision to code each body
region as visible (non-X) or not visible (X) for each of the 300
sightings. Next, when both analysts coded the body region as visible
for a sighting, we assessed agreement in the assigned numerical
postcranial (P), scapular (S), and lateral flank (L) condition scores.
We measured interrater agreement using the kappa (k) coefficient
(Cohen 1960), where k.0.75 is strong agreement, 0.75 .k.0.40
is good-to-moderate agreement, and k,0.40 is fair-to-poor
agreement (e.g., Simonoff 2003). Given that we scored the
postcranial condition using a 3-point ordinal scale, we employed a
weighted kappa (k
w
) coefficient (Cohen 1968) with linear weighting
in this case. For each of the 6 tests, we expected the underlying
prevalence of the observed entities to be imbalanced (e.g., more P
scores of 3 than 2 and 1), which can lead to low values of kdespite
relatively high values of total agreement (Feinstein and Cicchetti
1990). Therefore, for each test, we computed the proportional
agreement (p) of each unit (e.g., p
P3
,p
P2
, and p
P1
) along with kas a
February 2012 BRADFORD ET AL.—VARIATION IN GRAY WHALE BODY CONDITION 263
recommended supplemental diagnostic (Cicchetti and Feinstein
1990).
For the decision to code the postcranial area as visible or not
visible, kindicates good agreement and both values of pare high
(k50.67, p
Pnon-X
50.85, p
PX
50.83, n5300). For the postcranial
condition score assigned when both raters coded the region as visible,
k
w
denotes good agreement, while pis high for scores of 3 and only
somewhat reduced for scores of 2 and 1 (k
w
50.65, p
P3
50.88, p
P2
50.64, p
P1
50.63, n5135). For the choice to code the scapular
region as visible or not visible, kshows moderate agreement and both
p-values are high (k50.58, p
Snon-X
50.74, p
SX
50.83, n5300).
For the scapular condition score assigned when both researchers
coded the region as visible, kdemonstrates good agreement and p-
values are high, particularly for scores of 2 (k50.69, p
S2
50.94, p
S1
50.76, n589). For the judgment to code the lateral flanks as visible
or not visible, kreveals moderate agreement and both values of pare
high (k50.59, p
Lnon-X
50.82, p
LX
50.76, n5300). For the lateral
flank condition score assigned when both analysts coded the region as
visible, kspecifies strong agreement and p-values are high, especially
for scores of 2 (k50.83, p
L2
50.98, p
L1
50.85, n5141).
Observed entities were imbalanced only in the 3 tests involving
numerical condition scores. In these cases, values of pare higher for
the more prevalent observation (i.e., the score indicating best
condition) within each test.
Interrater agreement within the 6 tests was strong to moderate as
measured by k. Agreement was weakest for the choice to code each
of the 3 body regions as visible or not visible. A closer examination
of the decisions made by each rater revealed that 1 analyst reliably
coded each body region as visible more frequently than the other
analyst, suggesting slightly different, but consistent, interpretations of
the body position and photographic extent and quality needed to
assess body region condition. Determining the visibility of the
scapular region and lateral flanks can be challenging, requiring the
additional consideration of how much of the body is submerged,
which is possibly reflected in the reduced kcoefficients for those
regions. Agreement was strongest when assigning a numerical
condition score to mutually visible body regions. Further, kin these
cases is likely biased low given the imbalance in prevalence of the
observed entities (Feinstein and Cicchetti 1990), a suggestion that is
generally supported by values of the pdiagnostic. Unsurprisingly,
agreement was highest when assigning the scapular and lateral flank
condition scores, because these regions were scored on a 2-point
scale. Overall, findings of the interrater agreement study suggest that
although the sets of sightings with visible body regions identified by
multiple researchers may vary marginally in size, the numerical
scores assigned to these regions will be similar. Thus, the western
gray whale body region scoring protocol can be used by more than 1
trained researcher to achieve comparable results.
APPENDIXES II–IV OVERVIEW
Overview of sensitivity analyses conducted to confirm that month
was an appropriate and feasible scale at which to collapse the
numerical body region condition scores for the body condition
assessment of western gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus).
In general, each survey sighting of a western gray whale did not
result in a comprehensive set of images that allowed us to assign a
numerical score to each of the 3 body regions of interest (i.e.,
postcranial area, scapular region, and lateral flanks). Consequently, we
could not produce an overall individual determination of body
condition on a per-sighting basis. Additionally, a body condition
determination made for a single sighting might be too sensitive to the
effects of body position and other factors that can confound the body
region scoring process. Thus, it was necessary to collapse the scored
data for each sighting so that we could generate robust composites of
postcranial, scapular, and lateral flank condition. Specifically, we
needed to collapse the scored data at a scale that would be large enough
to maximize the use of intermittent sightings lacking the full suite of
body region condition scores, be small enough to minimize detectable
transitions from one score to the next, and allow for temporal
comparisons between annual field seasons. A preliminary assessment
of the scored body region data suggested that month would be a useful,
appropriate, and feasible scale at which to aggregate these data. We
conducted 2 sensitivity analyses to evaluate this decision.
Analysis 1: body region score transitions.—The objective of the 1st
analysis was to determine if the numerical scores assigned to each of
the 3 body regions changed within each month of the study (July,
August, and September). Accordingly, we used logistic regression to
model the effect of the interaction between the categorical variable
month and the continuous variable date on the body region condition
score as a categorical response. We treated individual whales as
random effects. Given the 3-point ordinal scale applied to the
postcranial area, we utilized the proportional odds model formulation
(e.g., Agresti 2002) in this case. From the 5,007 survey sightings of 168
western gray whales photo-identified between July and September of
1997–2007, 2,337 numerical (i.e., non-X) postcranial condition scores
from 165 individual whales (median of 9 scores per whale, range 1–72
scores), 2,091 scapular scores from 165 whales (median of 8, range 1–
62 scores), and 2,790 lateral flank scores from 167 whales (median of
11, range 1–75 scores) were available for this analysis.
Consistent with findings from the analysis of the body condition
determinations (see Table 3), results from the 3 model runs indicate
that condition in each body region improved as the field season
progressed (i.e., by month), although significant recovery in the
scapular region and lateral flanks was not detected until September
(Appendix II). However, significant improvements in body region
condition were not observed within each month, with the exception of
the scapular region in September (Appendix II). Given that the
overall body condition determinations were based primarily on the
postcranial condition (see ‘‘Materials and Methods: Body condition
assessment,’’ for explanation), and that the within-September
recovery of the scapular region was not highly significant, we
concluded that month was an appropriate scale to aggregate the
scored body region data for interannual comparisons, because it was
robust to detectable transitions between consecutive condition scores.
Collapsing the scored body region data.—We established a set of
hierarchical decision rules to guide the process of collapsing the scored
data into monthly determinations of postcranial, scapular, and lateral
flank condition for each whale. Appendix III presents these decision
rules and the frequency of their use. The 2,337 numerical postcranial
scores resulted in 1,133 monthly determinations of postcranial
condition, of which 1,010 (89.1%) are based on sightings that shared
the same numerical score during the month (i.e., decision rule A was
applied; Appendix III). Similarly, we collapsed the 2,091 scapular
scores into 1,035 monthly scapular determinations, with 953 (92.1%)
based on decision rule A, and the 2,790 lateral flank scores into 1,1,67
monthly lateral flank determinations, with 1,099 (94.2%) based on
decision rule A (Appendix III). In other words, most of the monthly
determinations of body region condition reflect no variation in
numerical scores assigned within the month, which likely is at least
partially explained by the aforementioned lack of detectable transitions
between adjacent scores at a monthly scale, but could also be a function
264 JOURNAL OF MAMMALOGY Vol. 93, No. 1
of the timing and number of monthly sightings. Therefore, we formed
most of the overall body condition determinations from body region
composites characterized by no within-month variation.
Analysis 2: effect of within-month variation.—The 2nd sensitivity
analysis examined whether incorporating body condition determina-
tions made from body region composites with possible within-month
variation (i.e., we applied decision rules B–F; Appendix III) would
refine or confound the statistical analysis of western gray whale body
condition. To this end, we compared the analysis of the full set of
body condition determinations (described in the main text, see
Tables 2 and 3 for results) to an identical analysis performed using
only the body condition determinations resulting from body regions
composites based on decision rule A. Note that composites where we
coded the scapular region or lateral flanks, or both, as X were
included in the sensitivity analysis, as long as we made the associated
postcranial condition determinations using decision rule A. Of the
1,133 determinations of known body condition (i.e., good, fair, or
poor), 929 (82.0%) met the composite specification criteria for the
sensitivity analysis. Identical to the full analysis, we employed
ordinal logistic regression (in the form of the proportional odds
model) in the sensitivity analysis to evaluate the effect of year,
month, reproductive class, and sex on the body condition of
individual whales, which we regarded as random effects.
As in the model selection procedure of the full analysis (Table 2),
likelihood ratio tests revealed that the model incorporating year, month,
and class as covariates is the most-parsimonious. Results of fitting this
model to the reduced set of body condition determinations (Appendix
IV) are equivalent to findings from the full analysis (Table 3).
Specifically, body condition was significantly worse in 1999, 2006,
and 2007 and significantly better in 2004 relative to the reference year of
1997. Further, body condition improved significantly with each month
of the field season, whereas lactating females were in significantly worse
body condition and calves in significantly better body condition as
compared to other whales. The comparable results of the 2 analyses and
the smaller standard errors associated with the predictor coefficients of
the full analysis indicate that utilizing the full set of known body
condition determinations refined the statistical analysis. Additionally,
the complementary nature of the analyses suggests that our method of
handling within-month variation when aggregating the scored body
region data (Appendix III) was reasonable. In summary, most
observations of body region condition did not vary within the month,
but we found a suitable means for collapsing scores when there was
variation. Thus, month offered a feasible, in addition to appropriate,
scale at which to aggregate the numerical body region condition scores
for the western gray whale body condition assessment.
APPENDIX II
Maximum-likelihood estimates resulting from fitting logistic
regression mixed models to numerical scores of western gray whale
(Eschrichtius robustus) postcranial, scapular, and lateral flank
condition, given an interaction between month and date. We used
the proportional odds formulation to model condition in the
postcranial area. For each body region, the 1st row(s) represents the
model intercept(s) and the rest predictor coefficients, with month 5
July serving as the reference category. Significant predictor
coefficients (P,0.05) are shown in boldface type. SE 5standard
error.
Body region Variable Estimate SE Wald zP-value
Postcranial Y2 2.845 0.351 8.112 ,0.001
Y320.544 0.341 21.594 0.111
Month =Aug. 0.904 0.321 2.818 0.005
Month =Sep. 2.169 0.346 6.266
,
0.001
Date 0.021 0.012 1.780 0.075
Aug.:Date 0.007 0.015 0.498 0.618
Sep.:Date 0.022 0.019 1.186 0.236
Scapular Y2 1.180 0.436 2.706 0.007
Month 5Aug. 0.222 0.439 0.505 0.614
Month =Sep. 1.302 0.467 2.791 0.005
Date 0.003 0.017 0.150 0.880
Aug.:Date 0.032 0.020 1.577 0.115
Sep.:Date 0.053 0.026 2.068 0.039
Lateral flank Y2 2.501 0.493 5.077 ,0.001
Month 5Aug. 0.397 0.425 0.935 0.350
Month =Sep. 1.649 0.473 3.483
,
0.001
Date 0.009 0.016 0.589 0.556
Aug.:Date 0.035 0.020 1.788 0.074
Sep.:Date 0.048 0.027 1.764 0.078
APPENDIX III
Hierarchical decision rules (DRs) used to collapse the scored western gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) body region data into monthly
determinations of postcranial (P), scapular (S), and lateral flank (L) condition for each whale. Decision rules were hierarchical in the sense that
we did not consider a rule unless the previous rule(s) did not provide a resolution. An uncertain score refers to instances in which an image(s)
within a sighting suggested a different score than that indicated by the majority of images.
DR Description of numerical score selected from those available
Frequency
PSL
A Only score assigned during the month 1,010 953 1,099
B Majority score assigned when there were no uncertain scores 30 39 34
C Majority score assigned after removing any uncertain scores 57 17 14
D Score from 1st one-half of month when 10 days separate conflicting scores 8 3 4
E Score that was not .score from next month or ,score from previous month 3 2 3
F Score that was most conservative (i.e., reflected better condition) 25 21 13
February 2012 BRADFORD ET AL.—VARIATION IN GRAY WHALE BODY CONDITION 265
APPENDIX IV
Maximum-likelihood estimates resulting from fitting the
proportional odds mixed model to western gray whale (Eschrichtius
robustus) body condition determinations (formed from body region
composites reflecting no within-month variation), given year, month,
and reproductive class. The first 2 rows represent model intercepts
and the rest predictor coefficients. Note that year 51997, month 5
July, and class 5other whale served as the reference categories.
Significant predictor coefficients (P,0.05) are shown in boldface
type. SE 5standard error; LF 5lactating female.
Variable Estimate SE Wald zP-value
Yfair 3.173 0.470 6.755 ,0.001
Ygood 0.050 0.435 0.116 0.908
Year 51998 0.471 0.519 0.907 0.364
Year =1999 21.261 0.459 22.749 0.006
Year 52000 20.764 0.522 21.463 0.143
Year 52001 20.801 0.483 21.660 0.097
Year 52002 20.163 0.492 20.332 0.740
Year 52003 0.453 0.521 0.869 0.385
Year =2004 1.117 0.565 1.976 0.048
Year 52005 20.873 0.471 21.852 0.064
Year =2006 20.989 0.494 22.004 0.045
Year =2007 21.881 0.477 23.947
,
0.001
Month =Aug. 1.267 0.221 5.729
,
0.001
Month =Sep. 2.841 0.297 9.577
,
0.001
Class =LF 25.480 0.467 211.728
,
0.001
Class =calf 5.533 1.086 5.094
,
0.001
266 JOURNAL OF MAMMALOGY Vol. 93, No. 1
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A small subset of the Eastern North Pacific gray whale population does not make the full migration from wintering grounds in Mexico to feeding grounds in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas and instead feed along the Pacific Coast between northern California and northern British Columbia. This group is known as the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG). We evaluated the body condition of PCFG whales observed in northern Washington and along Vancouver Island to evaluate how body condition of gray whales changes within and between years. We found that PCFG gray whales improve in body condition through the feeding season and at varying rates by year and that they have variability in their body condition at the start and end of each feeding season. The inclusion of environmental factors, particularly the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, drastically improved the ability of regression models to predict average whale body condition for a given year as compared to models without environmental factors included. A comparison of our findings to a previously published study on body condition of gray whales at Sakhalin Island, Russia highlight the differences between these two distinct feeding groups. Whales feeding at Sakhalin Island gain body condition quicker and more predictably to a good body condition by the end of the feeding season than the whales we studied in the PCFG. This method of visual photographic assessment may be an effective method for monitoring the effects of climate change on PCFG gray whales.
... Temporal variation in body condition across the foraging season was absent in a year when whales arrived in relatively good body condition (Lemos et al. 2020), providing some support for our model observations that whales may not necessarily need to feed intensively across the entire foraging season. A similar pattern of increasing body condition from July onward has been detected for western gray whales at Sakhalin Island (Bradford et al. 2012), but it is unknown whether body condition is stable early in the foraging season. Linear increases in blubber deposition across the foraging season have been detected for other baleen whales (Vikingsson 1990, Christiansen et al. 2013, but this does not necessarily discredit the potential for non-linear changes because the length of the foraging season, prey availability, metabolic demands, and maximum intake rates can vary among populations and/or species. ...
... Reductions in prey availability, either due to actual decreases or shortened foraging seasons, have been linked with decreases in body condition, reproductive success, and survival of gray whale populations (Moore et al. 2001, 2003, Grebmeier et al. 2006, Salvadeo et al. 2015, Gailey et al. 2020) and baleen whales in general (Braithwaite et al. 2015, Meyer-Gutbrod et al. 2015, Seyboth et al. 2016. At Sakhalin Island, annual sea ice conditions in the year prior to birth explained about 77% of the variation in calf survival, with whales returning in poorer body conditions in the year following a shortened foraging season (Bradford et al. 2012, Gailey et al. 2020). While our model predicts that whales may have some ability to compensate for delayed arrival time and reductions in arrival body condition, that ability is likely reduced when these factors co-occur. ...
... In our population simulations, the absence of highly abundant prey in even a single year led to the death of whales in relatively good body condition, regardless of the metabolic scenario, which had longterm population ramifications even though the population was able to recover from the initial decline caused by these mortalities. In reality, the population effects would be much worse given that lactating females are likely to be the most susceptible to changes in prey availability because they arrive on the foraging grounds in poor body condition (Bradford et al. 2012, Lemos et al. 2020. While this scenario is quite extreme, our results are relevant given the high number of eastern gray whales in poor body condition that stranded along the west coast of North America in 2019 (Christiansen et al. 2020), which led to the declaration of an unusual mortality event for this population. ...
Article
Acoustic disturbance is a growing conservation concern for wildlife populations because it can elicit physiological and behavioral responses that can have cascading impacts on population dynamics. State‐dependent behavioral and life history models implemented via Stochastic Dynamic Programming (SDP) provide a natural framework for quantifying biologically meaningful population changes resulting from disturbance by linking environment, physiology, and metrics of fitness. We developed an SDP model using the endangered western gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) as a case study because they experience acoustic disturbance on their summer foraging grounds. We modeled the behavior and physiological dynamics of pregnant females as they arrived on the feeding grounds and predicted the probability of female and offspring survival, with and without acoustic disturbance and in the presence/absence of high prey availability. Upon arrival in mid‐May, pregnant females initially exhibited relatively random behavior before they transitioned to intensive feeding that resulted in continual fat mass gain until departure. This shift in behavior co‐occurred with a change in spatial distribution; early in the season, whales were more equally distributed among foraging areas with moderate to high energy availability, whereas by mid‐July whales transitioned to predominate use of the location that had the highest energy availability. Exclusion from energy‐rich offshore areas led to reproductive failure and in extreme cases, mortality of adult females that had lasting impacts on population dynamics. Simulated disturbances in nearshore foraging areas had little to no impact on female survival or reproductive success at the population level. At the individual level, the impact of disturbance was unequally distributed across females of different lengths, both with respect to the number of times an individual was disturbed and the impact of disturbance on vital rates. Our results highlight the susceptibility of large capital breeders to reductions in prey availability, and indicate that who, where, and when individuals are disturbed are likely to be important considerations when assessing the impacts of acoustic activities. This model provides a framework to inform planned acoustic disturbances and assess the effectiveness of mitigation strategies for large capital breeders.
... The nutritional condition of the gray whale carcasses was considered during imagery review but ventral floatation precluded any meaningful assessment of body condition in floating carcasses (Bradford et al. 2012). Assessment of differences in oil slick size associated with individual floating carcasses was considered to assess oiliness of blubber as an indication of body condition; however, given the oblique angle of the images, the differences in sizes of oil slicks could not be evaluated. ...
... The absence of propeller and or skeg wounds indicative of vessel strike and line entanglement among the examined carcasses is noteworthy. Both ship strike and entanglement are widely recognized anthropogenic threats to Eastern and Western North Pacific gray whale stocks (Bradford et al. 2012;Scordino et al. 2014Scordino et al. , 2017. However, blunt trauma ship strike injuries have less obvious external signs (Gulland et al. 2005), and images capture only half of the whale's body. ...
Article
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Examining Eastern North Pacific gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) carcasses and tracking mortality and morbidity are essential for assessing the health of this stock. In the eastern Chukchi Sea, the expansive coastline relative to few coastal communities makes monitoring for and physical examination of gray whale carcasses difficult. The Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM) project offers an unparalleled dataset of gray whale carcasses, documented and photographed from July to October 2009–2019, providing a unique opportunity to investigate imaged gray whale carcasses for possible cause of death. Surveys covered expanses of gray whale and killer whale (Orcinus orca) summer and autumn habitat. ASAMM documented a total of 59 gray whale carcasses, distributed across the eastern Chukchi Sea (67.5° N–72.0° N, 155.5° W–169.0° W). Carcass sighting rates ([CPUE] carcasses per 1000-km of effort) varied by month and year. The highest numbers of carcasses were observed in 2012 (13) and 2019 (8). August had the highest number of gray whale carcass sightings (22) and the highest carcass sighting rate (0.231 CPUE). Images were obtained for 56 gray whale carcasses. The majority (41) of imaged gray whale carcasses had injuries consistent with probable killer whale predation, and were photo-documented every year except 2010 (when no carcasses were seen) and 2011. Eight carcasses were suspect killer whale predation, and cause of death could not be determined for seven carcasses. These results will be valuable for evaluating mortality, concurrent with rapid oceanographic changes, and increases in anthropogenic activities.
... Visual evaluation of body condition in beluga whale relies on three criteria: the general shape and the aspect of the neck and epaxial regions. Beluga whales with a rounded silhouette, a convex neck region and a convex epaxial region are evaluated to be in excellent body condition, whereas animals with a more angular shape, a concave neck and epaxial regions are deemed emaciated (Bradford et al., 2012;Joblon et al., 2014;Pettis et al., 2004). ...
... In addition, orthogonal least squares regressions may yield biased results since it tends to under-estimate the slope coefficient, and thus, over-estimate the residuals of larger animals (Peig & Green, 2009. Visual evaluation has been used to assess body condition of free-ranging gray whales, North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) and short-beaked common dolphins (Bradford et al., 2008(Bradford et al., , 2012Joblon et al., 2014;Pettis et al., 2004). In carcasses of beluga whales, visual evaluation can detect cachectic individuals; however, it is not precise enough to correctly estimate the body condition of intermediate animals (Larrat et al., 2019). ...
Article
Conservation efforts of the beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) of the St. Lawrence estuary include a mortality surveillance program which has the objective of documenting the causes of mortality. The evaluation of the animal's body condition is a key component in the diagnostic process. There is currently no consensual method to measure or calculate body condition indices in beluga whales. Morphological measurements recorded during necropsy were used to design a scaled mass body condition index that was compared to currently used visual evaluation, and to alternative morphological indices. Beluga whales were separated into two size-based groups. The scaled mass index was well correlated with analog-visual-scale derived scores in beluga whale >290 cm, but not in animals <290 cm. Both methods showed almost perfect agreement regarding the categorization of carcasses belonging to the first quartiles. The alternative indices that were best correlated with the scaled mass index were those calculated using the sacral circumference and the ventral adipose thickness in animals <290 cm and the epaxial muscle mass and maximum circumference in beluga whales >290 cm. These scaled indices could provide objective tools to evaluate body condition of stranded beluga whales.
... While we have little direct evidence of prey limitation in the study area (due to a lack of systematic forage fish or zooplankton monitoring), we noted changes in whale behavior and a tendency toward smaller group sizes (Neilson and Gabriele 2021), and poor body condition post-PMH suggests prey was limited. In 2016-2019, 10-23% of whales appeared abnormally thin (after Bradford et al. 2012) including mothers and calves (Neilson and Gabriele 2020) but we lack historical data to assess change over time. Anecdotally, it is not unusual for some whales to be noted as "thin" in the springtime, but during and after the PMH, many individuals continued to appear thin into late summer and fall (Glacier Bay National Park, unpublished data). ...
Article
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Understanding the ecosystem effects of ocean warming is increasingly important as marine heatwaves become more common and increase in severity. Here, we used Glacier Bay National Park long-term monitoring data (1985–2020) to investigate a sudden, sharp decline in humpback whale reproductive success and survival following the onset of the 2014–2016 Northeast Pacific marine heatwave (PMH). Oceanographic data confirm a persistent warm-water anomaly in 2015–2016 in Glacier Bay, months later than the PMH was documented in the North Pacific. We assessed changes in demographic parameters pre- and post-PMH using whale and calf counts and multi-state closed population capture–recapture models. Non-calf abundance decreased by 56% between 2013 and 2018, followed by increases in 2019–2020. The predicted proportion of females in the population declined in 2015–2017 (0.40–0.44). For 5 years during and after the heatwave (2015–2019) calf production was far lower than historic levels (0.041 calves per adult female, in contrast to 0.27 pre-PMH). Calf survival dropped tenfold beginning with calves born in 2013 (0.396–0.032) and midsummer calf losses occurred at an unprecedented rate starting in 2014. Non-calf survival declined from 0.982 pre-PMH to 0.899 post-PMH, lower than any value reported for this species. We surmise that documented changes to the forage fish and zooplankton prey base during and after the PMH were the main driver of reduced humpback whale survival and reproductive success. Humpback whale abundance and productivity in southeastern Alaska will likely take years to recover from the PMH, assuming a return to favorable feeding conditions. Our work highlights this population’s continued vulnerability as the climate warms into previously unobserved states.
... In addition, blubber thickness and lipid content in blubber can be used to assess body fat condition in whales since these indicators change with the nutritional status of individuals (Bradford et al., 2012;Gulland & Hall, 2005;Koopman et al., 2002;Lockyer, 2007;Lockyer & Waters, 1986;Miller et al., 2011Miller et al., , 2012. Although the main causes for recent high calf mortality events in the Valdés right whale population have not yet been identified (International Whaling Commission, 2018), poor nutritional state of mothers has been proposed as a potential contributor (International Whaling Commission, 2011;Rowntree et al., 2013;Sironi et al., 2016;Thomas et al., 2013;Uhart et al., 2009). ...
Article
Marine mammals rely on blubber mainly for energy storage, buoyancy, and streamlining. Mysticetes are born with a relatively thin fat layer that grows rapidly during nursing. However, little information on blubber deposition patterns is available for baleen whale calves. We measured blubber thickness at nine body locations in 350 southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) newborn to 4–6‐month‐old calves that died on the Península Valdés (Argentina) calving ground from 2003 to 2019, to document changes in blubber thickness with growth. Additionally, we looked for differences in blubber thickness and lipid content of the outer/superficial blubber in calves that died in years with high (2003, 2005, 2007–2013) and low calf mortality (2004, 2006, 2014–2019) to test whether the former were suffering from gross nutritional stress. Blubber thickness increased at all body locations with calf length. Along the cranio‐caudal axis, blubber increased in the dorsal and ventral planes, but decreased laterally towards the peduncle, possibly to improve streamlining. We found no difference in blubber thickness and lipid content between high and low mortality years, suggesting that individuals were not undernourished. This is the first study to describe progressive increases in calf blubber during growth and contributes knowledge to right whale health and ontogeny.
Thesis
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Offshore Exploration and Production (E&P) activities, such as seismic surveys and drilling, generate sound that can affect marine mammals in different ways. These effects range from permanent or temporary auditory impacts to disturbance or behavioral changes, and communication masking. Depending on the intensity and duration of these effects, and without implementation of appropriate mitigation measures, this can result in population-level consequences. The overarching objective of this study was to advance the protection of marine mammals during the implementation of E&P activities through the following themes: (1) enhancement of the state of knowledge of risk management, (2) efficacy of mitigation, (3) advanced monitoring technology, (4) implementation of advanced industry monitoring and mitigation measures and (5) measurement of heretofore unassessed E&P activities. In this study several marine mammal monitoring and mitigation programs associated with E&P projects are presented to further advance these themes. Topics being addressed include the use of autonomous camera systems for aerial monitoring of a narwhal population, long-term photo-identification studies of western gray whales to better understand site fidelity to their summer feeding grounds, mitigation of gray whales’ behavioral responses to a seismic survey near these feeding grounds and use of Passive Acoustic Monitoring to characterize seismic pulses and drilling activity as well as marine mammal presence in remote arctic areas. A synthesis of the main findings is provided that includes identification of future research needs. Conclusions and specific recommendations are made that will contribute to our ability to assess and mitigate risks of E&P sound to marine mammals.
Preprint
Understanding the ecosystem effects of ocean warming is increasingly important as marine heatwaves become more common and increase in severity. Here, we used Glacier Bay National Park long-term monitoring data (1985-2020) to investigate a sudden, sharp decline in humpback whale reproductive success and survival following the onset of the 2014-2016 Northeast Pacific marine heatwave (PMH). Oceanographic data confirm a persistent warm water anomaly in 2015-2016 in Glacier Bay, months later than the PMH was documented in the North Pacific. We assessed changes in demographic parameters pre- and post-PMH using whale and calf counts and multi-state closed population capture-recapture models. Non-calf abundance decreased by 56% between 2013 and 2018, followed by increases in 2019-2020. The predicted proportion of females in the population declined in 2015-2017 (range: 0.40-0.44). Calf production in 2015-2019 was far lower than historic levels, particularly in 2016-2019 (< 0.05 calves per adult female). Calf survival dropped tenfold (0.396 to 0.032) and midsummer calf losses occurred at an unprecedented rate. Non-calf apparent survival declined from 0.982 pre-PMH to 0.899 post-PMH, lower than any value reported for this species. We surmise that documented changes to the forage fish and zooplankton prey base during and after the PMH were the main driver of reduced humpback whale survival and reproductive success. Humpback whale abundance and productivity in southeastern Alaska will likely take years to recover from the PMH, assuming a return to favorable feeding conditions. Our work highlights this population’s continued vulnerability as the climate warms into previously unobserved states.
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Between 2005 and 2007, four female western gray whales were accidentally entrapped and died in Japanese set nets while migrating along the Pacific coast of Honshu, Japan. Photographs of these animals were compared to a photo-identification catalogue of western gray whales from their feeding ground off Sakhalin Island, Russia, to look for matches of individuals between the two areas. Although useable quality photographs were available for only one of the four whales from Japan, a confirmed match was made to a whale photographed off Sakhalin Island. This match represents the first link between the feeding ground and a migratory corridor and highlights the importance of multinational research collaboration in the formation of range-wide conservation measures to protect this critically endangered population.
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Cetacean populations are regulated through density-dependent changes in reproduction and survival, changes expressed most commonly in processes associated with recruitment (birth and juvenile survival) and involving causes associated with food resources. Social and behavioral factors are also important causal elements. Evolution, however, seems to have resulted in certain features of the dynamics of animal populations being somewhat independent of both the causal factors involved in density dependence and its modes of expression. There is a pattern in which the level of populations which produce maximum net growth in numbers is more closely related to the maximum rate of increase per generation time than to other factors. -from Author