Conservation Genetics

, Volume 14, Issue 1, pp 103–114 | Cite as

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

  • Kristen Ruegg
  • Howard C. Rosenbaum
  • Eric C. Anderson
  • Marcia Engel
  • Anna Rothschild
  • C. Scott Baker
  • Stephen R. Palumbi
Research Article


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 



We thank Barry Nickel with his help with the creation of Fig. 1. This work was supported by a grant from the Lenfest Ocean Program (#2004-001492-023).

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (EPS 1208 kb)
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Supplementary material 2 (PDF 683 kb)
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Supplementary material 3 (XLSX 49 kb)
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Supplementary material 4 (XLSX 37 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kristen Ruegg
    • 1
  • Howard C. Rosenbaum
    • 2
    • 3
  • Eric C. Anderson
    • 4
    • 5
  • Marcia Engel
    • 6
  • Anna Rothschild
    • 3
  • C. Scott Baker
    • 7
  • Stephen R. Palumbi
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Biology, Hopkins Marine StationStanford UniversityPacific GroveUSA
  2. 2.Ocean Giants Program, Global Conservation, Wildlife Conservation SocietyBronxUSA
  3. 3.Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, American Museum of Natural HistoryNew YorkUSA
  4. 4.Fisheries Ecology DivisionSouthwest Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries ServiceSanta CruzUSA
  5. 5.Department of Applied Math and StatisticsUniversity of CaliforniaSanta CruzUSA
  6. 6.Instituto Baleia Jubarte/Humpback Whale InstituteCaravelasBrazil
  7. 7.Marine Mammal Institute, Hatfield Marine Science CenterOregon State UniversityNewportUSA

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