Friday, January 3, 2014

Not always together: mum and calf in a mass stranding

The short-finned pilot whale mass stranding in Sabu Raijua, Oct 2012 (pic by Sabu govt and TNC)

In a mass stranding, mother and calf are not always stranded together. Some calves could also be found without the mothers in the vicinity. Check this excellent paper by Oremus et al (2013): 

Oremus, M., Gales, R., Kettles, H. & Baker, C. S. 2013, 'Genetic Evidence of Multiple Matrilines and Spatial Disruption of Kinship Bonds in Mass Strandings of Long-finned Pilot Whales, Globicephala melas', Journal of Heredity, vol. 104, no. 3, pp. 301-311.

Full paper, click here


Mass strandings of whales and dolphins have puzzled biologists since Aristotle. Although environmental factors are often assumed to initiate strandings, social forces must also influence the dynamics of many of these events, particularly for the primary species involved in mass strandings, the long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas).
Here, we test two hypotheses derived from common assumptions about the social dynamics of long-finned pilot whales by identifying maternal lineages from mtDNA haplotypes and inferring kinship from microsatellite genotypes of 490 individuals from 12 stranding events. Contrary to the “extended matriline” hypothesis, we found that multiple maternal lineages were present in at least 9 of the 12 mass strandings. Contrary to the “kinship cohesion” hypothesis, we found no correlation between spatial distribution and kinship along the stranding beach. Most notably, we documented the spatial disruption of the expected proximity between mothers and their dependent calves. These results challenge the common assumption that kinship-based behavior, such as care-giving, are a primary factor in these mass strandings. We suggest instead that disruption of kinship bonds could result from interactions among unrelated social groups during feeding or mating aggregations, perhaps playing a causal role in these events. Our finding that dependent calves were often spatially separated or absent from their mothers has important implications for humane management of rescue efforts. To improve our understanding of the social causes and consequences of mass strandings, future documentation of strandings should include exhaustive DNA sampling, with accompanying spatial and temporal records.

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