An elusive whale species in the Southern Ocean known as ‘Gray’s beaked whales’ could be resilient to near future ecosystem changes, according to a new study by the universities of Exeter and Copenhagen.
The study used a scientific technique called ‘genome sequencing’ on 22 whales that had washed up on beaches in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to investigate the history of the population over the past 1.1 million years. This allowed scientists to investigate any changes that had occurred within the population and highlight any areas of importance.
Author of the study Dr Kirsten Thompson, of the University of Exeter, said: "The population approximately doubled about 250 thousand years ago, coinciding with a period of increased Southern Ocean productivity, sea surface temperature and a potential expansion of suitable habitat.”
Results showed that the current population appears to have high levels of diversity and no similarity in genetic patterns, which suggests the whales leave their birth groups and travel widely throughout the range of the Southern Hemisphere. This means that the whales are capable of travelling long distances and able to adapt in changing conditions.
From these findings we can conclude that the Gray’s beaked whales will still be able to thrive within their habitat and could be resilient to changing conditions, both now and in the future. Scientists pinned this reason down to high genetic diversity and a flexible social system, both contributing factors to their survival throughout history.
"Our findings suggest numbers of Gray’s beaked whales have been relatively stable for the last 1.1 million years," Dr Thompson said.
“The Southern Hemisphere's oceans could potentially support a surprisingly large number of Gray’s beaked whales. Good news for one species at least.”