Southern Hemisphere humpback whales wintering off Central America: insights from water temperature into the longest mammalian migration

Kristin Rasmussen, Daniel M Palacios, John Calambokidis, Marco T Saborío, Luciano Dalla Rosa, Eduardo R Secchi, Gretchen H Steiger, Judith M Allen, Gregory S Stone

Abstract

We report on a wintering area off the Pacific coast of Central America for humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) migrating from feeding areas off Antarctica. We document seven individuals, including a mother/calf pair, that made this migration (approx. 8300 km), the longest movement undertaken by any mammal. Whales were observed as far north as 11° N off Costa Rica, in an area also used by a boreal population during the opposite winter season, resulting in unique spatial overlap between Northern and Southern Hemisphere populations. The occurrence of such a northerly wintering area is coincident with the development of an equatorial tongue of cold water in the eastern South Pacific, a pattern that is repeated in the eastern South Atlantic. A survey of location and water temperature at the wintering areas worldwide indicates that they are found in warm waters (21.1–28.3°C), irrespective of latitude. We contend that while availability of suitable reproductive habitat in the wintering areas is important at the fine scale, water temperature influences whale distribution at the basin scale. Calf development in warm water may lead to larger adult size and increased reproductive success, a strategy that supports the energy conservation hypothesis as a reason for migration.

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