Research Article

Conservation Genetics

, Volume 14, Issue 1, pp 103-114

First online:

Long-term population size of the North Atlantic humpback whale within the context of worldwide population structure

  • Kristen RueggAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University Email author 
  • , Howard C. RosenbaumAffiliated withOcean Giants Program, Global Conservation, Wildlife Conservation SocietySackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, American Museum of Natural History
  • , Eric C. AndersonAffiliated withFisheries Ecology Division, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries ServiceDepartment of Applied Math and Statistics, University of California
  • , Marcia EngelAffiliated withInstituto Baleia Jubarte/Humpback Whale Institute
  • , Anna RothschildAffiliated withSackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, American Museum of Natural History
  • , C. Scott BakerAffiliated withMarine Mammal Institute, Hatfield Marine Science Center, Oregon State University
  • , Stephen R. PalumbiAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University

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Once hunted to the brink of extinction, humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the North Atlantic have recently been increasing in numbers. However, uncertain information on past abundance makes it difficult to assess the extent of the recovery in this species. While estimates of pre-exploitation abundance based upon catch data suggest the population might be approaching pre-whaling numbers, estimates based on mtDNA genetic diversity suggest they are still only a fraction of their past abundance levels. The difference between the two estimates could be accounted for by inaccuracies in the catch record, by uncertainties surrounding the genetic estimate, or by differences in the timescale to which the two estimates apply. Here we report an estimate of long-term population size based on nuclear gene diversity. We increase the reliability of our genetic estimate by increasing the number of loci, incorporating uncertainty in each parameter and increasing sampling across the geographic range. We report an estimate of long-term population size in the North Atlantic humpback of ~112,000 individuals (95 % CI 45,000–235,000). This value is 2–3 fold higher than estimates based upon catch data. This persistent difference between estimates parallels difficulties encountered by population models in explaining the historical crash of North Atlantic humpback whales. The remaining discrepancy between genetic and catch-record values, and the failure of population models, highlights a need for continued evaluation of whale population growth and shifts over time, and continued caution about changing the conservation status of this population.


Effective population size Humpback whale Census population size Population structure