A Whale of a Tale

Humpback whales migrate seasonally from their feeding grounds to their breeding grounds. (Photo credit: NOAA)

People typically use Flickr to upload photos to share images of people, places, and events with their friends and family. A recent upload led to an amazing scientific discovery–a photo of a humpback whales fluke, or tail, taken during a whale sightseeing cruise 10 years earlier placed a humpback whale 9,800 km (6,000 miles) from where it had first been sighted by research scientists–a figure 3,200 km (2,000 miles) beyond the average whales yearly migration.

Marian C. Neves, a whale researcher associated with Brazil’s Instituto Baleia Jubarte, first spotted this particular humpback whale on August 7, 1999 off the coast of Brazil. At that time, scientists took skin samples from the whale and genetic analyses of the samples indicated that the whale, identified as whale 1363, was a female. On September 21, 2001, Freddy Johansen, a tourist from Norway, photographed the fluke of the same whale during a whale sightseeing cruise off the east coast of Madagascar. He didn’t upload the images from his trip until 2009, when he decided to back up photographs from his trip and share them with friends.

Gale McCullough, a research associate with Allied Whale, the College of the Atlantic’s marine mammal research group, works as a liaison with Flickr and searches the site for humpback whale images. She was the first to discover Johansen’s whale fluke photograph and identify it as a possible match to whale 1363. Each humpback whale fluke has a distinct pattern of speckles, and can be used to identify individual humpback whales, in the same way that fingerprints can be used to identify individual humans.

The uniqueness of whale fluke patterns was first discovered by College of the Atlantic researchers in the 1970s and quickly revolutionized the way scientists tracked and identified individual whales. For over 30 years, scientists have placed the data they have gathered (including identifying traits such as tail shape and color and underside patterns) on individual humpback whales into the Antarctic Humpback Whale Catalogue. Scientists across the world use this catalogue to study humpback whales and gather data on population sizes, migration patterns, sexual maturity, and behavior patterns.

Each humpback whale can be identified by its fluke, or tail, which has a unique shape and color pattern. (Photo credit: J. Waite, OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP); National Marine Mammal Lab/NOAA)

Each humpback whale can be identified by its fluke, or tail, which has a unique shape and color pattern. (Photo credit: J. Waite, OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP); National Marine Mammal Lab/NOAA)

Most humpback whales migrate twice-yearly. They spend their summers in temperate or polar waters where they feed on krill and then spend their winters in tropical waters where they mate and the females give birth to their calves. The whales follow the same route, which averages around 6,400 km (4,000 miles), year after year. What makes the distance traveled by whale 1363 extra unusual was that she was identified at two different breeding grounds.

Peter T. Stevick, lead author on a paper published about the humpback whale in the journal Biology Letters, offers two possible explanations for its wayward journey. One possible explanation is that the whale was exploring new habitat. A second explanation is that the whale simply got lost. For example, it might have gotten off course while tracking prey or looking for new feeding sites.

According to the Biology Letters article, the shortest possible distance between Brazil and Madagascar (with a route taking the whale from the South Atlantic Ocean to Africa and around to Madagascar in the Indian Ocean) is 9,800 km, which is 4,000 km longer than any previously-recorded movement between breeding grounds for a humpback whale. This distance is twice the species typical seasonal migratory distance and is the longest documented movement by a mammal.

Movement of an individual between breeding areas separated by approximately 90 longitudinal degrees, a continent, an ocean basin and nearly 10,000 km illustrates the ability of humpback whales to range across large portions of the globe, the authors explain in the article. Whatever factors resulted in this rare event, such extensive movement by an individual of a species that is typically philopatric [that is, returns to its place of birth] shows the extent of behavioral flexibility in movement that may be demonstrated within a species.

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