How southern right whales learn from their mothers

A Southern Right Whale in front of Circular Quay in Sydney Harbour in 2002. Nick Wilson/Getty Images

Southern right whales learn from their mothers in the first year of life about their annual migratory path along the Australian coast, scientists say.

And an international team lead by researchers at Macquarie University also found that this migratory culture has helped to shape the genetics and population recovery of southern right whales.

These whales are still endangered mainly because they were considered the “right” whales to catch. Not only did they come close to shore, making them easier targets, but when harpooned they floated, unlike their humpback cousins which tend to sink quickly.

These factors mean that the southern right whale population still only consists of 3000 members almost half a century after they were stopped being hunted.

The study is the first of its kind to link migratory habits to the genetics of such a large moving network of marine mammals.

Robert Harcourt from Macquarie University says the findings offer insight into how cultural preferences can shape genetics.

“Young whales acquire their migration preferences from their parents in a practice known as migratory culture, causing them to follow the same routes to get to their desired destination when they grow older,” says Professor Harcourt.

“What is interesting about the findings of this study is that they show that the migratory culture actually has an effect on the genetic patterns that we observe in both the summer feeding and winter calving grounds of Australian southern right whales.”

The study took up to 20 years to collect enough skin samples from southern right whales around Australia and New Zealand.

The DNA markers of each whale were studied, building a map of the population structure and how each was related. Micro-chemical markers were also tested to show feeding ground preferences.

Those whales that showed similar feeding ground preferences were more likely to be related.

The researchers hope their study will shed more light on the current issues facing this large, long-lived species of marine mammal, which are still recovering from the effects of whaling which for right whales ended in the 1960s. Australia continued taking sperm whales until 1978.

“Knowing the current genetic network of this species and their migratory habits, means we will be able to monitor them more precisely in the future,” says Professor Harcourt.

The study — Cultural traditions across a migratory network shape the genetic structure of southern right whales around Australia and New Zealand — is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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