Age-related multi-year associations in female humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae)
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- Ramp, C., Hagen, W., Palsbøll, P. et al. Behav Ecol Sociobiol (2010) 64: 1563. doi:10.1007/s00265-010-0970-8
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Analyses of social structures in baleen whales are rare, and so far, they are thought to consist of mostly short and unstable associations. We investigated the association patterns of individual humpback whales from a summer feeding aggregation in the Gulf of St. Lawrence from 1997 to 2005. Photo-identified animals were sexed using genetic methods and were grouped into five categories: juvenile males/females, mature males and lactating/non-lactating females. We calculated half-weight association indices within and between the groups and found that 45% of the observation showed single animals and another 45% small groups (two to three) consisting mainly of mature animals besides lactating females. Using permutation tests, we found evidence for long-term associations between mature males and non-lactating females as well as among non-lactating females. Standardised lagged association rates revealed that these male–female groups disassociated quickly over about 2 weeks, whereas associations increased again towards the beginning of the breeding season. Non-lactating females of similar age engaged in multi-seasonal stable pairs for up to six consecutive feeding seasons; no mature male–female association was observed in consecutive years. The females with the most stable and long-term associations also had the highest reproductive output. While the risk of predation could not explain these long-term bonds, feeding cooperation seemed the most plausible explanation for group forming behaviour during the summer months.