Declining reproductive success in the Gulf of St. Lawrence’s humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) reflects ecosystem shifts on their feeding grounds


Climate chage has resulted in physical and biological changes in the world's oceans. How the effects of these changes are buffered by top predator populations, and therefore how much plasticity lies at the highest trophic level, are largely unknown. Here, endocrine profiling, longitudinal observations of known individuals over 15 years between 2004 and 20018, and environmental data are combined to examine how the reproductive success of a top marine predator is being affected by ecosystem change. The Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada, is a major summer feeding ground for humpback whales (Megaptera Novaeanglia) in the North Atlantic. Blubber biopsy samples (n = 185) of female humpback whales were used to investigate variations in pregnancy rates through the quantification of progesterone. Annual pregnancy rates showed considerable variability, with no overall change detected over the study. However, a total of 457 photo-identified adult female sightings records with/without calves were collated, and showed that annual calving rates declined significantly. The probability of observing cow-claf pairs was related to favourable environmental conditions in the previous year; measured by herring spawning stock biomass, Calanus spp. abundance, overall copepod abundance and phytoplankton bloom magnitude. Approximately 39% of identified pregnancies were unsuccessful over the 15 years, and the average annual pregnancy rate was higher than the average annual calving rate at ∼37% and ∼23% respectively. Together, these data suggest that the declines in reproductive success could be, at least in part, the result of females being unable to accumulate the energy reserves necessary to maintain pregnancy and/or meet the energetic demands of lactation in years of poorer prey availability rather than solely an inability to become pregnant. The decline in calving rates over a period of major environmental variability may suggest that this population has limited resilience to such ecosystem change.

KEY WORDS: Biopsy · Calving rates · Endocrine profiling · Environmental change · Marine mammals · Photo-indentification · Pregnancy rates 

Joanna L. Kershaw, Christian Ramp, Richard Sears, Stephane Plourde Pablo Brosset, Patrick J. O. Miller, Ailsa J. Hall. Glob Change Biol. 2020;00:1-15
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