Mammal Species of the World
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Humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae, live in polar and tropical waters, particularly those of the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific Oceans. Their range also includes the waters of the Bering Sea and the waters surrounding Antarctica.
Biogeographic Regions: arctic ocean (Native ); atlantic ocean (Native ); pacific ocean (Native )
Humpbacks in the North Atlantic range in summer from the Gulf of Maine in the west and Ireland in the east, and up to but not into the pack ice in the north; the northern extent of the humpback's range includes the Barents Sea, Greenland Sea and Davis Strait, but not the Canadian Arctic. They occur mainly in specific feeding areas, as noted below. In the winter the great majority of whales migrate to wintering grounds in the West Indies, and an apparently small number use breeding areas around the Cape Verde Islands.
In the North Pacific their summer range covers shelf waters from southern California, to the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea and southern Chukchi Sea, the Aleutian chain and Kamchatka, Kurile Islands, Okhotsk Sea and northeastern Japan. Wintering grounds are off the coasts of Mexico and Central America, around the Hawaiian Islands, the Bonin Islands, Ryukyu Islands and the northern Philippines, and possibly around additional island groups in the western North Pacific.
Humpbacks are abundant throughout the Antarctic in summer south to the ice edge, but not within the pack ice zone. In the winter, Southern Hemisphere whales aggregate into specific nearshore breeding areas in the Atlantic, Indian Ocean and Pacific, two of which extend north of the equator, i.e. off Colombia in the eastern Pacific and in the Bight of Benin in the Atlantic. Some wintering grounds are fairly localized, e.g. around island groups, and some are more diffuse, e.g. along the western coast of southern Africa and the southern coast of West Africa.
There is a resident year-round population in the Arabian Sea, which is genetically distinct from that of the southern Indian Ocean.
Humpbacks rarely enter the Mediterranean and are considered only visitors there (Reeves and Notarbartolo di Sciara 2006).
occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
Global Range: (>2,500,000 square km (greater than 1,000,000 square miles)) Range encompasses the world's oceans from the subtropics to high latitudes. All subpopulations (except the one in the Arabian Sea) migrate between mating and calving grounds in tropical/subtropical waters, usually near continental coastlines or island groups, and productive colder waters in temperate and high latitudes (Reilly et al. 2008).
The cerebellum of humpback whales constitutes about 20% of the total weight of the brain; the brain does not differ much from those of other mysticete whales.
The olfactory organs of humpback whales are greatly reduced and it is doubtful whether they have a sense of smell at all. Their eyes are small and adapted to withstand water pressure. Their external auditory passages are narrow, leading to a minute hole on the head not far behind the eye.
Humpback females are larger than males. They are one of the few species of mammals for which this is true.
The most distictive external features of humpbacks are the flipper size and form, fluke coloration and shape, and dorsal fin shape. Flippers are quite long and can be almost a third of the body length. They are largely white and have knobs on the leading edge. The butterfly-shaped tail flukes bear individually distinctive patterns of gray and white, and have a scalloped trailing edge. The dorsal fin can be a small triangle or sharply falcate, and often has a stepped or humped shape; this is one source of the name "humpback."
There are 14 to 35 ventral pleats or grooves.
Humpbacks have the greatest relative blubber thickness for their size of any rorqual. Megaptera novaeangliae is second only to blue whales in absolute thickness of blubber. Blubber thickness varies at different times of the year, as well as with age and physiological condition.
Baleen plates are usually all black with blackish bristles.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: female larger
Average mass: 3e+07 g.
Length: 1300 cm
Weight: 3.0E7 grams
Size in North America
Range: 14-17 m
Range: 25,000-45,000 kg
Differs from all other large whales in the very large and often white or partially white flippers, the knobs on the head, and the irregular rather than smooth rear margin of the tail fluke (Leatherwood and Reeves 1983). Dorsal fin varies such that it may resemble those of the blue whale, fin whale, or sei whale.
Catalog Number: USNM 301636
Collection: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Division of Mammals
Preparation: Skull; Partial Skeleton; Photograph
Collector(s): A. Goes
Year Collected: 1870
Locality: Santo Domingo, Greater Antilles, Hispaniola, Haiti, Caribbean Sea, North America, North Atlantic Ocean
- Type: Cope, E. D. 1871. Proc. Amer. Philos. Soc. 12: 103.
The habitat of humpback whales consists of polar to tropical waters, including the waters of the Artic, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans, as well as the waters surrounding Antartica and the Bering Strait. During migration, they are found in coastal and deep oceanic waters. Generally, they do not come into coastal waters until they reach the lattitudes of Long Island, New York, and Cape Cod, Massachessetts.
Humpbacks are divided into several populations. These are for the most part isolated, but with a little interchange in some cases. There are two stocks in the north Atlantic Ocean and two in the north Pacific. There are also seven isolated stocks in the southern hemisphere.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; polar ; saltwater or marine
Aquatic Biomes: benthic ; coastal
Habitat and Ecology
In the Southern Hemisphere, humpbacks appear to feed mainly in the Antarctic, where the diet consists almost exclusively of krill (Euphausia superba) (Mackintosh 1970), although some feeding in the Benguela Current ecosystem on the migration route west of South Africa has been observed (Best et al. 1995; suspected prey species are: E. lucens and Themisto gaudichaudii).
Limited data on diet in other areas is available. Humpback Whales caught off Newfoundland and Labrador in the 1950s and 1960s were found to be consuming mainly Capelin (Mallotus villotus) (Mitchell 1973). Those caught off California in the early 20th century were eating mainly euphausiids and sardines (Clapham et al. 1997). In areas of Alaska and the North Atlantic, Humpback Whales have also been observed feeding co-operatively on schools of Herring (Clupea harengus), Sand Lance (Ammodytes spp.) and (more rarely) Mackerel (Scomber scombrus), by herding the school together with bubble nets, clouds or curtains (Hain et al. 1982).
The timing of acquisition of tooth rake marks attributable to Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) indicates that Humpback Whale calves, but usually not subadults and adults, are subject to predation by this species (Mehta et al. 2005).
Habitat Type: Marine
Comments: Habitat includes the open ocean and coastal waters, sometimes including inshore areas such as bays. Summer distribution is in temperate and subpolar waters. In winter, most humpbacks are in tropical/subtropical waters near islands or coasts.
In the western North Atlantic, humpbacks give birth mainly over shallow wide banks near islands. In Hawaii, they concentrate over shallower waters near islands (Tomich 1986); groups including a calf tend to occur in shallower waters than do groups lacking a calf (Smultea 1994).
Water temperature and chemistry ranges based on 7774 samples.
Depth range (m): 0 - 0
Temperature range (°C): -1.581 - 29.319
Nitrate (umol/L): 0.038 - 29.526
Salinity (PPS): 30.132 - 37.870
Oxygen (ml/l): 4.401 - 8.759
Phosphate (umol/l): 0.034 - 1.983
Silicate (umol/l): 0.494 - 87.357
Temperature range (°C): -1.581 - 29.319
Nitrate (umol/L): 0.038 - 29.526
Salinity (PPS): 30.132 - 37.870
Oxygen (ml/l): 4.401 - 8.759
Phosphate (umol/l): 0.034 - 1.983
Silicate (umol/l): 0.494 - 87.357
Note: this information has not been validated. Check this *note*. Your feedback is most welcome.
Non-Migrant: No. All populations of this species make significant seasonal migrations.
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).
Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.
In the western North Atlantic, most humpbacks depart breeding areas in late winter-early spring. They arrive in northern feeding areas in 1-2 months; in the southern Gulf of Maine, they commonly return to the same area in successive years (Clapham et al., 1993, Can. J. Zool. 71:440-443). Southward migration occurs in fall; individuals arrive in breeding areas in 1-2 months. This species occurs off Hawaii mainly January-March.
Resightings of photoidentified individuals indicate that individuals may winter in widely separated areas in different years; at least some individuals may occupy widely separated areas in a single spring-summer season (e.g., Hawaii and Mexico, Hawaii and Japan, Japan and British Columbia) (see Darling and Mori 1993; Marine Mammal Sci. 12:281-287, ; Salden et al. 1999). The fastest documented migration from southeastern Alaska to Hawaii took 39 days (Marine Mammal Sci. 12:457-464).
Like minke whales, and fin whales, humpbacks are generalized feeders. They are highly mobile and opportunistic. Humpbacks feed upon plankton, the plant and animal life at the surface of the ocean's water, or upon fish in large patches or schools. Because of this, humpbacks are classified as "swallowers" and not "skimmers." They do eat commercially exploited fishes. Feeding by humpbacks takes place during the summer.
Atka makerel and Pacific saury are the most commonly found fish prey of humpbacks in the eastern North Pacific Ocean. The former is considered one of the favorite foods of humpback whales in waters off the Western Aleutians and South of the Amchitka Islands. In addition, humpbacks in the North Pacific and the Bering Sea eat euphausiids (krill), mackerel, sand lance, Ammodytes americanus, capelin and herring.
Fishes comprise about 95% of the diet of North Atlantic humpbacks. Those humpbacks living in the Atlantic Ocean, specifically near Cape Cod and Greenland, also eat sand lance, herring and pollock.
Humpbacks near Australia and in the Antartic also feed on euphausiids.
Typically, these whales take both food and water into their mouths. Large volumes can be accomodated because the ventral grooves in the throat allow for expansion. Once the mouth is full, it is closed and the water is pressed out. Meanwhile, the food is caught in the baleen plates and is then swallowed. This process is aided by the internal mechanism of rorqual feeding--the tongue.
Humpbacks have five main feeding behaviors (the first three are more commonly observed than the last two):
- Ring of foam. Humpbacks have an elaborate feeding behavior in which they lie on the ocean's surface and swim in a circle. While doing so, they strike the water with their flukes forming a "ring of foam," which surrounds their prey. Then, they dive under the ring and resurface in the center with mouth open, allowing them to capture the prey within the ring.
- Lunging. Humpbacks feed by swimming vertically or obliquely up through aggregations of plankton or fish. This occurs only when their food is abundant. In addition, some variation may occur by means of lateral and/or inverted lunging.
- Bubble behavior. When these whales use underwater exhalation to create bubble clouds and bubble columns.
Bubble clouds are large inter-connected masses of bubbles formed by one underwater exhalation. Clouds concentrate or herd a mass of prey. Feeding is presumed to occur underwater. After that the humpback rises slowly to the surface within the bubble cloud. After several blows and some shallow diving, the manuever is repeated. Bubble clouds appear to assist in prey detection or capture by immobilizing or confusing prey. Bubble clouds may cause a jumping response among the prey, helping the whale to detect the prey, or it may disguise the whale from the prey.
Bubble columns are formed as a humpback swims underwater in a broad circle while exhaling. An individual column may form rows, semicircles, or complete circles. These circles act like a seive net, concentrating or herding the prey.
- Tail slashing. In this method of feeding, the individual whale swims in a large circle while slashing its tail through the water. The actual feeding takes place in the center of the turbulence.
- Inside loop behavior. A whale can make a shallow dive, while hitting the water with its fluke as it submerges. A 180 degree roll is then rapily executed as the animal makes a sharp U turn (the "inside loop") and then lunge feeds slowly through the turbulent area created by its flukes. The whale feeds beside the area of turbulence.
- Flick-feeding. this occurs only when whales eat euphausiids.
At times, humpbacks combine some of these methods, for example, combining bubble feeding and tail slapping (lobtailing), as they feed on sand lance.
It is important to note that no humpback younger than two years old uses the tail slapping method, although they are weaned from their mothers at one year. However, rudimentary lobtail feeding has been witnessed several times among older post-weaning young.
In addition, no difference has been noted in the frequency of lobtail feeding between the sexes.
Animal Foods: fish; zooplankton
Foraging Behavior: filter-feeding
Primary Diet: carnivore (Piscivore ); planktivore
Comments: This species is primarily dependent upon schooling fishes and krill (essentially krill only in the Southern Hemisphere). Feeding occurs singly or in groups, at the surface or while submerged, mainly in high latitudes, though stranded individuals in Virginia and Georgia had eaten sciaenid fishes (Laerm et al. 19970.
Humpback whales employ a wide variety of foraging methods, including cooperative feeding on prey enclosed in "nets" of exhaled air bubbles.
10,000 - 100,000 individuals
Comments: Population size based on counts in breeding areas is greater than 66,600. North Pacific: ~18,300 (2004-2006; Calambokidis et al. 2008); North Atlantic: 10,290-13,990 (early 1990s; Stevick et al. 2003); Southern Hemisphere: at least 36,763 (Reilly et al. 2008).
Humpback whales travel singly, in pairs or trios, or in groups of usually about 10-15. They may form stable feeding groups that stay together throughout the summer and that reform in subsequent summers.
This species sometimes has succumbed to local die-offs off the northeastern United States, due apparently to ingestion of prey containing red tide toxins (IUCN 1991).
Life History and Behavior
Perception Channels: tactile ; chemical
Comments: Active day/night.
Status: wild: 77.0 years.
Status: wild: 95.0 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Humpbacks appear to possess a polygynous/polygamous mating system, with males competing aggressively for access to oestrous females.
Mating System: polygynous
The reproductive habits of humpback whales are typically mammalian. The breeding season is during the winter, and breeding takes place in tropical waters.
There are few actual observations of copulation in this species. The male and the female first swim in a line; they then engage in rolling, flipping, and tail fluking. Next, both dive and then surface vertically, with ventral surfaces "in close contact." They emerge from the water to a point below their flippers. They then fall back onto the surface of the water together. The gestation period lasts 11 to 11.5 months. During that time the embryo grows approximately 17 to 35 cm per month.
Sexual maturity is usually reached between 4 to 5 years. In males, the length of the penis can be an indication of sexual maturity. However, in some cases, puberty may proceed sexual maturity by one year. In sexually mature males, the weight of the testes and the rate of spermatogenesis increase during the breeding season, coinciding with the ovulation of the females. In the females, after sexual maturity is reached, ovary weight remains fairly constant. As ovulation approaches, "resting" Graafian follicles on the surface of the ovaries enlarge. There generally is only one ovulation per breeding season.
Breeding usually takes place once every two years, but it may occur twice every three years. In the latter situation, lactation may last longer that 5 months.
If a female is impregnated shortly after parturition, pregnancy and lactation may proceed simultaneously.
Breeding interval: Females of this species typically produce offspring every two years, and can produce yound twice in three years.
Range number of offspring: 1 (low) .
Average number of offspring: 1.
Range gestation period: 11 to 11.5 months.
Average weaning age: 5 months.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 4 to 5 years.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 4 to 5 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; fertilization ; viviparous
Average birth mass: 1.35e+06 g.
Average number of offspring: 1.
Calves are born in the warm tropical waters and subtropical waters of each hemisphere. Newborns are usually 4 to 5 m long, and are suckled by their mothers for about 5 months. The females' milk is highly nutritive, containing high amounts of fat, protein, lactose and water. There is no parental investment on the part of the males.
Parental Investment: pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female)
In the western North Atlantic, young are born from December or January through March. Gestation lasts 11-12 months. Most adult females bear a calf every 2-3 years (sometimes 1 or 4 years). Young are weaned in 5-12 months. Twelve females that were monitored since first being observed as calves produced their first calves at ages of 5-7 years (Can. J. Zool. 70:1470). In Alaska, the age of first calving is 8-16 years (average 11.8 years).
Evolution and Systematics
Blowholes of humpback whales corral prey by creating spiraling nets of air bubble underwater.
"Behaviourally, humpback whales capture prey by engaging in complex feeding manoeuvres that are often accompanied by the apparently directed use of air bubbles. The ability of bubble barriers to corral or herd fish has been reported by a number of authors (e.g., Smith, 1961; Blaxter & Batty, 1985; Sharpe & Dill, 1997). Bubble use by humpback whales has been observed in many of their feeding habitats and is reported to occur in a variety of configurations. These bubble-feeding behaviours appear to vary in nature among both individuals and regions; for example, bubble clouds (the production of a single or multiple bursts of seltzer-sized bubbles) are commonly observed from humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine, but never in Alaskan waters.
"Of the various bubble configurations reported, the most complex appears to be the bubble net (Jurasz & Jurasz, 1978; Watkins & Schevill, 1979; Hain et al., 1982). Existing descriptions of this unique and complex behavior are currently derived only from surface observations, predominately Jurasz & Jurasz (1979) and Hain et al. (1982). As described by Jurasz & Jurasz (1979), bubble nets are rings of distinctive bubbles that appear at the surface in a closed circle or figure '9'. In the Gulf of Maine, bubble nets have been further described by Hain et al. (1982) as a ring formed by a series of discrete bubble columns, blown at 3–5 m depth, by a whale that is rotated inward with the flippers in a vertical plane. The nets were described as incorporating 1.25–2 revolutions with smaller bubbles grading into larger bubbles as the net was closed. In both descriptions, whales fed in the centre of the completed bubble net at or near the surface. (Wiley et al. 2011: 576-577)
Watch Videos on Bubble Feeding
Learn more about this functional adaptation.
- Hain JHW; Carter GD; Kraus SD; Mayo CA; Winn HE. 1982. Feeding behavior of the humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, in the western North Atlantic. Fishery Bulletin. 80: 259-268.
- Wiley D; Ware C; Bocconcelli A; Cholewiak D; Friedlaender A; Thompson M; Weinrich M. 2011. Underwater components of humpback whale bubble-net feeding behavior. Behaviour. 148: 575-602.
The flippers of the humpback whale channel flow and increase aerodynamic efficiency due to tubercles or bumps.
"The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is reported to use its elongate pectoral flippers during swimming maneuvers. The morphology of the flipper from a 9.02-m whale was evaluated with regard to this hydrodynamic function. The flipper had a wing-like, high aspect ratio plan- form. Rounded tubercles were regularly interspersed along the flipper's leading edge. The flipper was cut into 71 2.5-cm cross-sections and photographed. Except for sections near the distal tip, flipper sections were symmetrical with no camber. Flipper sections had a blunt, rounded leading edge and a highly tapered trailing edge. Placement of the maximum thickness placement for each cross-section varied from 49% of chord at the tip to 19% at mid-span. Section thickness ratio averaged 0.23 with a range of 0.20-0.28. The humpback whale flipper had a cross-sectional design typical of manufactured aerodynamic foils for lift generation. The morphology and placement of leading edge tubercles suggest that they function as enhanced lift devices to control flow over the flipper and maintain lift at high angles of attack. The morphology of the humpback whale flipper suggests that it is adapted for high maneuverability associated with the whale's unique feeding behavior." (Fish and Battle 1995:51)
"The humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae is exceptional among the baleen whales in its ability to undertake acrobatic underwater maneuvers to catch prey. In order to execute these banking and turning maneuvers, humpback whales utilize extremely mobile flippers. The humpback whale flipper is unique because of the presence of large protuberances or tubercles located on the leading edge which gives this surface a scalloped appearance. We show, through wind tunnel measurements, that the addition of leading-edge tubercles to a scale model of an idealized humpback whale flipper delays the stall angle by approximately 40%, while increasing lift and decreasing drag." (Miklosovic et al. 2004:L39)
Watch Video of Whales' Hunting Technique
Learn more about this functional adaptation.
- Fish, F. E.; Battle, J. M. 1995. Hydrodynamic design of the humpback whale flipper. J Morphol. 225(1): 51-60.
- Miklosovic, D. S.; Murray, M. M.; Howle, L. E.; Fish, F. E. 2004. Leading-edge tubercles delay stall on humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) flippers. PHYSICS OF FLUIDS. 16(5):
The tail of a humpback whale drives the whale through the water using powerful horizontal flukes that move up and down.
"The huge tail flukes of a humpbacked whale break water as the animal dives. One of the largest living mammals, the whale uses its tail for swimming. The tail with its horizontal flukes is moved up and down to drive the animal through the water, while its small flippers, the vestiges of its forelimbs, are used for balancing and steering." (Foy and Oxford Scientific Films 1982:44)
Learn more about this functional adaptation.
- Foy, Sally; Oxford Scientific Films. 1982. The Grand Design: Form and Colour in Animals. Lingfield, Surrey, U.K.: BLA Publishing Limited for J.M.Dent & Sons Ltd, Aldine House, London. 238 p.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Megaptera novaeangliae
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Megaptera novaeangliae
Public Records: 4
Specimens with Barcodes: 4
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
The reasons for the change to Least Concern from the previous classification of Vulnerable (VU A1abd) are threefold:
(i) in the areas for which data are available, the population has continued to increase in the 10 years since the previous assessment;
(ii) abundance and trend data are available for more areas than were available for the previous assessment;
(iii) the criteria for Vulnerable have been changed: the threshold reduction for the A1 criterion has been changed from 20% to 50%.
Despite the encouraging global status, concern remains about apparently discrete and small subpopulations of humpback whales for which information about status is lacking. These include the Arabian Sea (isolated from the southern Indian Ocean), the western North Pacific, the west coast of Africa, and the South Pacific subpopulations in portions of Oceania (breeding stocks E and F) that likely feed in Antarctic Areas V and VI.
- 1994Vulnerable(Groombridge 1994)
- 1990Vulnerable(IUCN 1990)
- 1988Endangered(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1988)
- 1986Endangered(IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre 1986)
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N4 - Apparently Secure
Rounded National Status Rank: N3 - Vulnerable
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G4 - Apparently Secure
Reasons: Large worldwide range extends throughout all oceans; depleted by past overharvesting; population size now exceeds 60,000 and has increased over the past several decades; vulnerable to marine pollution, disturbance by boat traffic, and entanglement in fishing gear, but these are not major threats, and the species is now apparently secure.
Date Listed: 06/02/1970
Lead Region: National Marine Fisheries Service (Region 11)
Where Listed: Entire
Population location: Entire
Listing status: E
For most current information and documents related to the conservation status and management of Megaptera novaeangliae , see its USFWS Species Profile
Currently, there are an estimated 6,000 humpbacks in the earth's waters, with possibly 1,000 to 3,000 more. The healthiest populations occur in the western north Atlantic Ocean. A few other areas in which there are small populations include the waters near Beguia, Cape Verde, Greenland, and Tonga. Global humpback populations have begun to strengthen, although this species is still a conservation concern.
Humpback whales received some protection in 1985 when the International Whaling Commission instituted a moratorium on commercial whaling. In the early part of the twentieth century, during the modern whaling era, humpback whales were highly vulnerable due to their tendency to aggregate on the tropical breeding grounds and to come close to the shore on the northern feeding grounds.
More than 60,000 humpbacks were killed between 1910 to 1916 in the southern hemisphere, and there were other peaks of exploitation in the 1930's and 1950's. In the North Pacific, there were peak catches of over 3,000 in 1962 to 1963.
In order to combat the problem of depletion, catching humpback whales was prohibited in the Antartic in 1939, although that plan was abandoned in 1949. In the southern hemisphere, hunting was banned in 1963. In the North Atlantic, hunting was banned in 1956. Finally hunting was banned in the North Pacific in 1966.
US Federal List: endangered
CITES: appendix i
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
A comprehensive assessment of North Atlantic Humpback Whales was completed by the IWC Scientific Committee in 2002, from which most of the information below is drawn (IWC 2002, 2003).
There is a distinct but relatively small winter aggregation in the east around the Cape Verde Islands – the site of fairly extensive 19th century Yankee whaling (Reeves et al. 2002). The major present-day North Atlantic breeding and calving area in the West Indies extends from Cuba in the west down the island chain as far as Venezuela; the largest breeding aggregations occur on Silver and Navidad Banks near the Dominican Republic, with much lower concentrations in Samana Bay (Dominican Republic), off the northwest coast of Puerto Rico, and around the Virgin Islands and the eastern Antilles. Some humpback whales have also been sighted in high-latitude waters during the winter, indicating that not all individuals migrate to the southern wintering grounds every year.
Six distinct feeding aggregations have been identified: Gulf of Maine, Gulf of St Lawrence, Newfoundland/Labrador, West Greenland, Iceland, North Norway (including Bear Island and Jan Mayen). Genetic and photo-identification data indicate that the six feeding aggregations represent relatively discrete subpopulations, fidelity to which is determined matrilineally. However, because whales from different feeding grounds all mix in a common breeding area in the West Indies, there is male-mediated nuclear gene flow between the subpopulations.
The best available abundance estimate for the West Indies group of breeding aggregations is 10,752 in 1992-93 (CV 0.068) with an estimated annual rate of increase of 3.1% (SE 0.5%) (Stevick et al. 2003). There is no estimate of abundance for the Cape Verde Islands breeding aggregation, but to date a total of 72 individuals have been identified there (J. Allen pers. comm. 2007). As of 2007, only one photographic match has been made from the Cape Verde Islands to a feeding ground (off Iceland), but the matching exercise is only partially complete.
Animals from the West Indies breeding area are found in all six known feeding aggregations. However, genetic evidence suggests that part of the Icelandic and Norwegian feeding aggregations consists of whales that winter outside the West Indies. Though some of these likely migrate to the Cape Verde Islands, the population found there in winter is too small relative to the number of animals thought to be breeding somewhere other than the West Indies, and at present the identity of this additional breeding area (or areas) remains unresolved.
Higher rates of increase have been estimated in some feeding areas (e.g. 6.5% for the Gulf of Maine; Barlow and Clapham 1997).
Humpbacks were heavily exploited in the past by pre-modern whaling in their breeding grounds in both the West Indies and the Cape Verde Islands, and by modern whaling in their feeding grounds, especially off Iceland and Norway in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Catches by pre-modern whaling are estimated primarily from logbook and trade records. Catches by early modern whaling also need to be estimated because most of the catch records during the first few decades were not divided by species.
Catches in the West Indies (including Bermuda) are documented from 1664 to the present day, but the main period was 1826-1928, during which about 8,600 whales were estimated to have been killed. Whaling in the Cape Verde Islands occurred primarily during 1850-1912 with a total estimated kill of about 3,000 animals. An estimated 3,200 were taken from Iceland and 2,000 from northern Norway during 1880-1916. About 1,500 Humpback Whales are reported killed in the North Atlantic since 1916, from a variety of areas including the British Isles, Faeroes, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, and eastern Canada, as well as Norwegian pelagic catches.
Population modelling exercises show that the recent abundance and increase rate of humpback whales in the North Atlantic are too large to represent a recovery from depletion by the estimated past kills. This suggests that either:
(i) past kills have been substantially underestimated; or
(ii) there has been some increase in the environmental carrying capacity for humpback whales; or
(iii) whaling had a negative impact on the population, over and above the effects of the actual removals, in ways that are not understood; or
(iv) some combination of the above factors.
Whichever of the above hypotheses pertain, the increase rate of 3% per annum implies that humpbacks are considerably more abundant in the North Atlantic today than they were in 1940. This is consistent with anecdotal evidence of the relatively low numbers observed prior to 1960.
The following subpopulations have been identified (Calambokidis et al. 2001, 2008):
- Eastern North Pacific. Winters off the coast of Mexico (Baja California, Gulf of California, mainland) and summers off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington.
- Central North Pacific. Winters in the central North Pacific and Hawaiian Islands; summers in Alaska (Prince William Sound) and British Columbia.
- Western North Pacific. Winters in the western North Pacific, in the Bonin Islands, Ryukyu Islands and the Philippines, and possibly in other island areas in the southwestern North Pacific; summers off Kamchatka, in the Bering Sea and along the Aleutian Islands, west of the Kodiak Archipelago.
There are two additional subpopulations, one that winters off Central America and summers off California, the other that winters around the Revillagigedo Islands and summers in unknown areas but possibly in the Bering Sea or near the Aleutian Islands (Urbán et al. 2000)
Some interchange of individuals between the known North Pacific breeding grounds has been documented (Calambokidis et al. 2001, 2008).
Abundance: Eastern North Pacific. Recent information is summarized in the NOAA stock assessment report (Anon. 2005a). The abundance of humpbacks was estimated from shipboard line transect surveys in the waters of California, Oregon and Washington during 1996-2001 to be 1,314 (CV 0.30) animals. Mark-recapture from photo-identification in the same area yielded an estimate of 1,391 whales in 2002/03, with an increase of about 8% per year over the period 1991-2003. Mark-recapture from photo-identification in the Mexican Pacific yielded an estimate of 1,813 (CI: 918-2505) for the Mainland Mexico and Baja California subpopulation, and 914 (CI: 590-1193) for the Revillagigedo subpopulation (Urbán et al. 1999). The recently completed SPLASH (Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpback Whales in the North Pacific) project resulted in estimates by various methods of ~1,400-1,700 for the California-Oregon feeding area and ~6,000-7,000 for the Mexican wintering areas (Calambokidis et al. 2008).
Abundance: Central North Pacific. Based on mark-recapture analysis of photo-identification data in the Hawaiian wintering ground, the abundance was estimated at 4,005 (CV 0.095) whales in 1993 (Calambokidis et al. 1997). Older mark-recapture estimates for this stock exist, but their lack of comparability renders their use for estimating an increase rate questionable. Aerial surveys designed to be comparable across years yielded a trend estimate of 7% per year from 1993-2000 (Angliss and Outlaw 2005). SPLASH yielded wintering estimates for the Hawaii wintering ground by various methods of 7,120-10,425 (Calambokidis et al. 2008).
Summer feeding areas for this stock have been identified in Prince William Sound (Alaska), southeastern Alaska and off British Columbia, but the abundance estimates for the known feeding grounds total only about 2,000 (Angliss and Outlaw 2005a). This suggests that more feeding areas are yet to be found. In view of their current high abundance in the Hawaiian Islands, the sparseness of historical accounts of humpback whales in Hawaii prior to the 20th century is surprising. It may be a relatively new wintering ground (Herman 1979). The SPLASH estimates for the combined Southeast Alaska and British Columbia feeding areas are around 3,000-5,000 (Calambokidis et al. 2008)
Abundance: Western North Pacific. Abundance in 1991-93 was estimated at 394 (CV 0.084) from photo-identification data (Angliss and Outlaw 2005b). Humpback whale sightings from Japanese cetacean surveys in the western North Pacific, including those conducted in conjunction with the Japanese scientific whaling programme (JARPN), have not yet been analyzed to provide abundance estimates. The recent SPLASH survey covered the range more broadly and resulted in estimates by various methods of 938-1,107 (Calambokidis et al. 2008)
Humpback Whales were severely depleted by whaling throughout the North Pacific until they were protected by the IWC from 1966 onwards. Illegal Soviet catches continued until 1971 (Doroshenko 2000). Humpbacks were taken by pre-modern whalers in Japan before the 20th century, but so far no series of catch estimates have been compiled for the pre-modern period. About 21,000 humpback whales are recorded caught by modern whaling in the North Pacific in the 20th century, of which about 14,000 were in the eastern North Pacific and 7,000 in the west (IWC 2006a). Included in these figures are about 2,500 humpbacks taken illegally by USSR fleets during 1961-65, that were concealed at the time, mainly in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea (Doroshenko 2000). In addition, nearly 20,000 unspecified whales were caught in the early 20th century, of which a substantial number probably were humpbacks. The latter were taken primarily in the eastern North Pacific, except that the locations of about 9,000 unspecified whales taken by American pelagic whalers during 1911-1919 have not yet been ascertained.
No comprehensive assessment of North Pacific humpback whales has been conducted by the IWC Scientific Committee. The evidence suggests that North Pacific Humpback Whales have been increasing, following depletion by whaling, but that this recovery is not yet complete. Given catches of nearly 7,500 during 1961-65, a minimum estimate for the 1960 population would be about 8,000, but the population level in 1940 was probably lower than today. A large-scale international collaboration (the SPLASH project) involving photo-identification and genetic sampling was conducted across the entire North Pacific in 2004-06. The results have been recently analyzed and yielded a best estimate for the entire North Pacific of 18,302 (average of estimates of 17,558 for wintering and 19,056 for summer feeding areas). A 4.9% annual increase is suggested for the period since 1991-93.
The low SPLASH population estimate for the western North Pacific subpopulation of around 1,000 is a cause for concern.
Northern Indian Ocean
A resident stock, which apparently does not migrate, is found in the Arabian Sea. Genetic differences, and the lack of photographic matches with other areas, suggest that this is an isolated subpopulation; in addition, analysis of illegal Soviet catch data from the 1960s indicates that this population has a distinctly boreal reproductive cycle (Mikhalev 1997). A population estimate of 56 animals (95% CI 35-255) from photo-identification data may be negatively biased due to incomplete coverage (IWC 2005). A total of 242 whales was taken illegally by Soviet whalers in 1965-66 (Mikhalev 1997).
A comprehensive assessment of Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whales by the IWC Scientific Committee is nearing completion (IWC 2005, 2006b, 2007). Traditionally the IWC managed humpback whale stocks on the basis of the six Antarctic Areas (I through VI) but the Scientific Committee now recognizes seven major breeding stocks, A through G, some of which are tentatively further subdivided into substocks.
The wintering grounds of these are:
A (Southwest Atlantic): coast of Brazil
B (Southeast Atlantic): the coast of West Africa from the Gulf of Guinea down to South Africa
C (southwestern Indian Ocean): coasts of eastern South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar (southern, western and eastern coasts), Mayotte, the Comoros and other western Indian Ocean island groups;
D (southeastern Indian Ocean): northwestern Australia
E (southwest Pacific) northeastern Australia, New Caledonia, Tonga and Fiji.
F (central South Pacific): Cook Islands and French Polynesia
G (southeast Pacific): Ecuador, Galápagos, Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica.
Apart from stocks A and D, there is evidence of substructure within the stocks, with subunits that are spatially and genetically isolated to varying degrees.
The extent of mixing of the C stock wintering off the coasts of Mozambique (the C1 substock), Madagascar (the C3 substock) and the western Indian Ocean island groups (the C2 substock) remains unclear.
The structure of stocks E and F is particularly unclear: there appear to be at least six separate subpopulations (eastern Australia, New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga, Cook Islands, and islands further east), and it is unclear how these should be grouped if at all.
The structure of stock B is also unclear: there appears to a northern substock (B1) wintering off the coast off Gabon, the Congos and Cabinda (Angola) and in the Bight of Benin, and a southern substock (B2) with a diffuse or ill-defined wintering area off southern Angola, Namibia, and western South Africa, although animals seen in the southern area may include those on migration to and from wintering grounds to the north. Feeding occurs in the Benguela Current area; this may include animals wintering there but also animals stopping to feed during their migration.
The winter distribution of the G stock extends into the Northern Hemisphere, and may overlap with the distribution of North Pacific stocks; several photo-id matches have been made between the Antarctic Peninsula and Central America, although whether there is temporal overlap between these whales and their northern conspecifics is unclear. Tourist observations of mother-calf pairs around the Galápagos during January to March, if confirmed, suggest that North Pacific animals may also use this area. Phylogenetic analyses (Baker et al. 1994) reveal that maternal lineages in the eastern Pacific cross between the Northern and Southern Hemisphere populations, such that there has been some interchange between the hemispheres, but not necessarily in recent times.
For most of the breeding stocks, recent estimates of abundance on their wintering grounds have been obtained from line-transect surveys and/or capture-recapture analyses using photo-identification data. For some stocks, direct estimates of the rate of increase are available from recent time-series of abundance data. The available estimates of recent abundance and trends for wintering grounds are listed in Table 1 (see attached PDF). The total estimate of 36,600 for the Southern Hemisphere is negatively biased, because no abundance estimate is available for stock F, and the estimate for stock B covers only part of the wintering range for a discrete period. Furthermore, it is possible that the entire population does not migrate to the wintering grounds, as evidenced by, for example, an apparent excess of males in winter censuses. Rate of increase estimates are available for five stocks, ranging from 4.6% p.a. to 10.5% p.a.
The abundance of Humpback Whales during summer in the Antarctic south of 60°S has also been estimated from data from the International Decade of Cetacean Research (IDCR) (later Southern Ocean Whale and Ecosystem Research, SOWER) programme surveys. A part of the Antarctic has been surveyed each year since 1978/79, yielding 3 sets of circumpolar surveys. The abundance estimates for each circumpolar survey are listed in Table 2 (see attached PDF). All three circumpolar estimates are probably underestimates of the hemispheric population, because not all humpback whales will have been south of 60°S during the surveys, and major summer concentration areas north of 60°S in the South Atlantic (to the east of South Georgia and in the vicinity of the South Sandwich Islands and around Bouvet Island) are not included.
The summer feeding areas of each stock cannot be delineated with much precision, but a combination of photo-identification, genetic, satellite tracking and old Discovery mark data suggest the following relationships: Breeding stock A (Brazil) feeds in the South Georgia/South Sandwich area in Area II (Zerbini et al. 2006); breeding stock D (W. Australia) feeds in Antarctic Area IV ands perhaps eastern Area III; breeding stock G (southeast Pacific) feeds along the Antarctic Peninsula and around the South Shetlands, and in the Magellan Strait; breeding stock E (eastern Australia and at least some island groups of western Oceania) feeds in Antarctic Area V. The feeding areas of the other stocks could not be delineated at this stage.
Humpback Whale stocks were heavily depleted throughout most the Southern Hemisphere in the early 20th century by a combination of coastal catches in their wintering grounds and catches from land stations and by pelagic fleets in their Antarctic feeding grounds. Approximately 220,000 Humpback Whales were taken in total, of which about 100,000 since 1940; almost half of these latter consisted of illegal takes by the USSR (Zemsky et al. 1996, Allison 2006).
During 1908-1963, recorded catches outside the Antarctic (north of 40°S) have been: about 30,000 off the western coasts of southern Africa (primarily Gabon and Angola); nearly 20,000 off the eastern coasts of southern Africa (Natal, Mozambique and Madagascar) and in the western Indian Ocean; 28,000 off western Australia; about 15,000 off eastern Australia, New Zealand and southwest Pacific Islands; and about 2,000 each from the western and eastern coasts of South America. After 1904, a further approximately 27,000 whales were taken from land stations in South Georgia and over 12,000 from the South Shetlands. Pelagic whaling fleets operated during 1925-66, taking over 83,000 humpbacks. This includes more than 48,000 animals taken by the USSR, of which all but 2,710 were taken illegally (primarily from Areas IV and V); of this total, some 25,000 Soviet catches were taken in just two whaling seasons (1959/60 and 1960/61).
Due partly to the difficulties of assigning feeding areas, and hence past catches, to breeding stocks, the IWC Scientific Committee has completed population assessments only for stocks A, D, and G. The assessment of D was considered preliminary due to likely mixing in the feeding grounds with stock E and possibly other stocks.
The A stock (southwest Atlantic) is estimated to have been depleted rapidly from an initial level of 25,000 in 1904 to less than 2,000 in the 1920s, by catches from South Georgia land stations. Continued catches from South Georgia and pelagic fleets further depleted the stock to a few hundred animals by the mid-1960s when whaling ceased. The stock has recovered strongly since then to over 6,500 today.
The B stock (southeast Atlantic) was depleted by large catches in its wintering grounds off Gabon, Congo, Angola, Namibia and western South Africa, with open-boat whaling beginning in the 19th century and modern whaling beginning in 1909. Catches in Gabon and Congo were not continuous, but occurred in bursts as the stock(s) apparently began to recover between periods of intensive whaling. Nearly 30,000 humpbacks are recorded caught off the western coasts of sub-Saharan Africa during 1909-1960. The last large catches were made by Norwegian and French whalers off Gabon and São Tomé who took over 4,000 humpbacks during 1951-54. A final attempt at commercial exploitation in 1959 off Gabon caught just 160 whales.
After an initial burst of heavy catching off Mozambique and South Africa totalling nearly 8,000 whales during 1908-15, the C stock (southwest Indian Ocean) was subject to continuous but relatively low catches from Natal, South Africa between 1920 and 1962 and two discrete episodes (1937-39 and 1949-50) off Madagascar (Angot 1951). While catches off Natal remained relatively low after 1915, catches were far higher during the two episodes off Madagascar. Catches by pelagic expeditions in and outside the Antarctic probably also had an impact on this stock.
The D stock (southeast Indian Ocean) is estimated to have been reduced from a pre-whaling population of about 20,000 in 1910 to about half this level by 1940, mainly by catches from and off western Australia. Following a brief respite during WWII, the stock was further depleted (notably by illegal Soviet catches) to perhaps fewer than 1,000 animals by the mid-1960s, but recovered to about 10,000 by 1999. The current population size is very likely more than the 1940 level, and very likely more than half the pre-whaling level, subject to a caveat over the potential for mixing of stock D and other stocks in the feeding grounds (IWC 2007).
The E stock (eastern Australia/western Oceania) was heavily affected not only by catches totalling nearly 15,000 during 1909-62 from shore-station whaling in eastern Australia and elsewhere, but also by Soviet illegal pelagic catches of over 30,000, taken in Area V during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The F stock (Oceania) was not subject to whaling in its wintering grounds but was probably affected by illegal Soviet catches in Areas V and VI. However, because the migratory destinations of this stock are unclear, assignment of these catches to the F stock has been difficult.
The G stock (southeast Pacific) is estimated to have been rapidly depleted from a pre-whaling level of about 10,000 animals in 1910 to a few hundred animals by the mid 1920s, mainly by catches from land stations on the South Shetland Islands. Pelagic catches in the putative feeding ground of this stock (Antarctic Area I) were relatively few, because of its distance from ports of approach, and because pelagic whaling was prohibited in Antarctic Areas I and VI (the then-Sanctuary) from 1935-55. The stock is estimated to have increased during 1925-55, but to have been knocked back down to the low hundreds by a new wave of pelagic catching that followed the opening of the Sanctuary in 1955. The stock is estimated to have increased since the end of humpback whaling in the mid-1960s, to its current level of about 4,000, which is well above the 1940s level but well below the pre-whaling level.
Generation time: 22 years (Taylor et al. 2007). The time window for applying the reduction criterion (A1) for a threatened category is 1941-2007.
Global population. All the new assessments of humpback whale stocks conducted by the IWC Scientific Committee to date indicate that the stocks concerned have recovered to levels at or above their 1940 level. Because the IWC Scientific Committee has not yet conducted assessments for the North Pacific and for four of the seven recognized Southern Hemisphere stocks, it is not yet possible to formally gauge the world population level relative to the 1940 level. However, given the increase rates observed in several of the unassessed North Pacific and Southern Hemisphere stocks (Table 1; see attached PDF), there is little reason to suppose that the world population is still below 50% of the 1940 level (the threshold for Vulnerable status under the reduction criterion)
Despite the encouraging global status, concern remains about apparently discrete and small subpopulations of humpback whales for which information about their status is lacking; these include the Arabian Sea (isolated from the southern Indian Ocean), the western North Pacific, and South Pacific subpopulations in portions of Oceania (breeding stocks E and F).
Global Short Term Trend: Increase of 10 to >25%
Comments: Populations have increased in the North Pacific, North Atlantic, and Southern Hemisphere over the past several decades (Stevick et al. 2003, Calambokidis et al. 2008, Reilly et al. 2008).
Today, small numbers only are taken by a 'subsistence' whaling operation off St Vincent (1-2 animals per year); it is possible that other small unreported catches occur elsewhere.
The government of Japan announced plans to resume humpback whaling in the Antarctic from the 2007/08 season, starting with an experimental catch of 50 animals per year under scientific permit (Government of Japan 2005). The impact of these catches on small unrecovered stocks of humpbacks in Oceania that feed in the whaling grounds of Area V is not clear.
Also, in humpback habitat off the coasts of Brazil, Gabon, Angola, Mozambique and Madagascar (Breeding Stocks A, B, and C), there is a great deal of ongoing and planned offshore oil and gas development, with potential impacts.
Humpback Whales are subject to entanglements, often fatal, in fishing gear. They are also vulnerable to injury by ship strikes, which can also be fatal. The documentation of such incidents is best for US waters. For the Atlantic coasts of the US during 1999-2003, there were 19 reports of death or serious injury caused by entanglements and seven cases of death or serious injury due to ship strikes (Anon. 2005b). For US Pacific waters (mainly Alaska) during 1999-2001 there were 13 reports of deaths and serious injuries due to entanglement and 3 reports of deaths due to ship strikes (Anon. 2005a).
Japanese Annual Progress Reports submitted to the IWC during 2003-06 listed 3-5 Humpback Whales caught annually in fishing gear, mainly coastal trap nets (Miyashita and Kato 2006).
In most areas, the observed increases in Humpback Whale abundance in recent times implies that human-caused mortality is not sufficient to threaten the populations concerned. However, the situation should be kept under review for populations that are still small and for which no increase has been detected, such as the in western North Pacific and parts of Oceania.
Degree of Threat: Low
Comments: Historically, populations were greatly reduced by commercial whaling. Humpback whales have been protected from commercial whaling worldwide since 1966, and there have been few catches since 1968 (Reilly et al. 2008). The species remains vulnerable to marine pollution, disturbance by boat traffic, mortality from boat collisions, and entanglement in fishing gear (e.g., Volgenau et al. 1995 Todd et al. 1996, Mazzuca et al. 1998), but these factors currently are not significantly interfering with population recovery.
Humpback Whales enjoy additional protective measures, such as sanctuaries, in a number of countries. The species is listed in Appendix I of both CITES and CMS.
Global Protection: Few (1-3) occurrences appropriately protected and managed
Needs: In waters off northeastern North America, more effective entanglement reporting and assisting systems are needed, and increased efforts are needed to decrease entanglements in fishing gear (Volgenau et al. 1995). Protection could be enhanced by establishement of additional marine sanctuaries in areas where the species congregates.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Humpback whales staying close to the shore on the Eastern Canadian seaboard damage cod and herring traps and can tear loose long lengths of a set net.
Negative Impacts: crop pest
Humpbacks have historically had incredible economic importance to humans. They were one of the nine species hunted intensively by whalers. They were at times the most important constituent of the catch of modern whalers. Their oil was in demand as a kind of burning oil for lamps and as a lubricant for machinery. Whale oil was also used as a raw material for margarine and as a component of cooking fat. Whale meat was processed for human consumption and made into animal feed. Meal made from whale bones was used as fertilizer.
However, these animals are no longer hunted extensively. They do continue to have some economic impact, as ecotourism and whale sighting tours are quite popular in appropriate coastal areas.
Positive Impacts: ecotourism
Comments: Humpback whales formerly were subjected to heavy commercial harvest, primarily for oil; a very small harvest for local use still occurs in the Lesser Antilles. Economic value today is primarily as objective of many whale watching cruises.
IUCN Red List Category
IUCN Red List Category
IUCN Red List Category
The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is a species of baleen whale. One of the larger rorqual species, adults range in length from 12–16 metres (39–52 ft) and weigh approximately 36,000 kilograms (79,000 lb). The humpback has a distinctive body shape, with unusually long pectoral fins and a knobbly head. An acrobatic animal known for breaching and slapping the water with its tail and pectorals, it is popular with whale watchers off the coasts of Australasia and the Americas. Males produce a complex song lasting 10 to 20 minutes, which they repeat for hours at a time. Its purpose is not clear, though it may have a role in mating.
Found in oceans and seas around the world, humpback whales typically migrate up to 25,000 kilometres (16,000 mi) each year. Humpbacks feed only in summer, in polar waters, and migrate to tropical or subtropical waters to breed and give birth in the winter. During the winter, humpbacks fast and live off their fat reserves. Their diet consists mostly of krill and small fish. Humpbacks have a diverse repertoire of feeding methods, including the bubble net feeding technique.
Like other large whales, the humpback was and is a target for the whaling industry. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, its population fell by an estimated 90% before a moratorium was introduced in 1966. While stocks have since partially recovered, entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships, and noise pollution continue to impact the 80,000 humpbacks worldwide.
- 1 Taxonomy
- 2 Description
- 3 Life history
- 4 Ecology
- 5 Whaling
- 6 Conservation
- 7 Whale-watching
- 8 Famous humpbacks
- 9 Media
- 10 See also
- 11 Footnotes
- 12 References
- 13 Further reading
- 14 External links
|A phylogenetic tree of animals related to the humpback whale|
Humpback whales are rorquals (family Balaenopteridae), a family that includes the blue whale, the fin whale, the Bryde's whale, the sei whale and the minke whale. The rorquals are believed to have diverged from the other families of the suborder Mysticeti as long ago as the middle Miocene. However, it is not known when the members of these families diverged from each other.
Though clearly related to the giant whales of the genus Balaenoptera, the humpback has been the sole member of its genus since Gray's work in 1846. More recently, though, DNA sequencing analysis has indicated the humpback is more closely related to certain rorquals, particularly the fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), and possibly to the gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus), than it is to rorquals such as the minke whales. If further research confirms these relationships, it will be necessary to reclassify the rorquals.
The humpback whale was first identified as baleine de la Nouvelle Angleterre by Mathurin Jacques Brisson in his Regnum Animale of 1756. In 1781, Georg Heinrich Borowski described the species, converting Brisson's name to its Latin equivalent, Balaena novaeangliae. In 1804, Lacépède shifted the humpback from the Balaenidae family, renaming it Balaenoptera jubartes. In 1846, John Edward Gray created the genus Megaptera, classifying the humpback as Megaptera longipinna, but in 1932, Remington Kellogg reverted the species names to use Borowski's novaeangliae. The common name is derived from the curving of their backs when diving. The generic name Megaptera from the Greek mega-/μεγα- "giant" and ptera/πτερα "wing", refers to their large front flippers. The specific name means "New Englander" and was probably given by Brisson due the regular sightings of humpbacks off the coast of New England.
Genetic research in mid-2014 by the British Antarctic Survey confirmed that the separate populations in the North Atlantic, North Pacific, and Southern Oceans are far more distinct than previously thought. Some biologists believe that these should regarded as separate subspecies of humpback whales, and that they are all evolving independently.
A humpback whale can easily be identified by its stocky body with an obvious hump and black dorsal coloring. The head and lower jaw are covered with knobs called tubercles, which are hair follicles, and are characteristic of the species. The fluked tail, which it lifts above the surface in some dive sequences, has wavy trailing edges. The four global populations, all under study, are: North Pacific, Atlantic, and Southern Ocean humpbacks, which have distinct populations which complete a migratory round-trip each year, and the Indian Ocean population, which does not migrate, prevented by that ocean's northern coastline.
The long black and white tail fin, which can be up to a third of body length, and the pectoral fins have unique patterns, which make individual whales identifiable. Several hypotheses attempt to explain the humpback's pectoral fins, which are proportionally the longest fins of any cetacean. The two most enduring mention the higher maneuverability afforded by long fins, and the usefulness of the increased surface area for temperature control when migrating between warm and cold climates.
Humpbacks have 270 to 400 darkly coloured baleen plates on each side of their mouths. The plates measure from a mere 18 inches (46 cm) in the front to approximately 3 feet (0.91 m) long in the back, behind the hinge. Ventral grooves run from the lower jaw to the umbilicus about halfway along the underside of the whale. These grooves are less numerous (usually 14–22) than in other rorquals but are fairly wide.
The stubby dorsal fin is visible soon after the blow when the whale surfaces, but disappears by the time the flukes emerge. Humpbacks have a 3 metres (9.8 ft), heart-shaped to bushy blow, or exhalation of water through the blowholes. Because humpback whales breathe voluntarily, the whales possibly shut off only half of their brains when sleeping. Early whalers also noted blows from humpback adults to be 10–20 feet (3.0–6.1 m) high.
Newborn calves are roughly the length of their mother's head. At birth, calves measure 6 metres (20 ft) at 2 short tons (1.8 t) The mother, by comparison, is about 15 metres (49 ft). They nurse for approximately six months, then mix nursing and independent feeding for possibly six months more. Humpback milk is 50% fat and pink in color.
Females reach sexual maturity at the age of five, achieving full adult size a little later. Males reach sexual maturity at approximately seven years of age. Humpback whale lifespans range from 45–100 years. Fully grown, the males average 13–14 m (43–46 ft). Females are slightly larger at 15–16 m (49–52 ft); one large recorded specimen was 19 metres (62 ft) long and had pectoral fins measuring 6 metres (20 ft) each. The largest humpback on record, according to whaling records, was the female killed in the Caribbean; she was 27 metres (89 ft) long with a weight of 90 metric tons (99 short tons) although the reliability of this information is unconfirmed due to illogicality of the record. Body mass typically is in the range of 25–30 metric tons (28–33 short tons), with large specimens weighing over 40 metric tons (44 short tons). The female has a hemispherical lobe about 15 centimetres (5.9 in) in diameter in its genital region. This visually distinguishes males and females. The male's penis usually remains hidden in the genital slit.
The varying patterns on the tail flukes are sufficient to identify individuals. A study using data from 1973 to 1998 on whales in the North Atlantic gave researchers detailed information on gestation times, growth rates, and calving periods, as well as allowing more accurate population predictions by simulating the mark-release-recapture technique (Katona and Beard 1982). A photographic catalogue of all known North Atlantic whales was developed over this period and is currently maintained by College of the Atlantic. Similar photographic identification projects have begun in the North Pacific by Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpbacks, and around the world.
The humpback social structure is loose-knit. Typically, individuals live alone or in small, transient groups that disband after a few hours. These whales are not excessively social in most cases. Groups may stay together a little longer in summer to forage and feed cooperatively. Longer-term relationships between pairs or small groups, lasting months or even years, have rarely been observed. Some females possibly retain bonds created via cooperative feeding for a lifetime. The humpback's range overlaps considerably with other whale and dolphin species—for instance, the minke whale. However, humpbacks rarely interact socially with them, though one individual was observed playing with a bottlenose dolphin in Hawaiian waters.
Courtship and reproduction
Courtship rituals take place during the winter months, following migration toward the equator from summer feeding grounds closer to the poles. Competition is usually fierce, and unrelated males, dubbed escorts by researcher Louis Herman, frequently trail females, as well as mother-calf dyads. Male gather into "competitive groups" and fight for females. Group size ebbs and flows as unsuccessful males retreat and others arrive to try their luck. Behaviors include breaching, spyhopping, lob-tailing, tail-slapping, fin-slapping, peduncle throws, charging and parrying. Whale songs are assumed to have an important role in mate selection; however, they may also be used between males to establish dominance.
Females typically breed every two or three years. The gestation period is 11.5 months, yet some individuals have been known to breed in two consecutive years. The peak months for birth are January, February, July, and August, with usually a one- to two–year period between humpback births. Recent research on humpback mitochondrial DNA reveals groups living in proximity to each other may represent distinct breeding pools.
Humpbacks, known to be a friendly species, often interact with other cetacean species such as bottlenose dolphins. Right whales are often seen to interact with humpbacks and these behaviors have been recorded in all oceans. A record of a Humpback and a Southern right demonstrating what was thought to be a mating behaviors was documented off the Mozambique coast. Humpback whales are also known to appear in mixed groups with other species, such as the blue whale, fin whale, minke whale, gray whale, and sperm whale. Teams of researchers including Nan Hauser observed a male humpback whale singing an unknown type of song and approaches a fin whale at Rarotonga in 2014.
Both male and female humpback whales vocalize, but only males produce the long, loud, complex "songs" for which the species is famous. Each song consists of several sounds in a low register, varying in amplitude and frequency, and typically lasting from 10 to 20 minutes. Humpbacks may sing continuously for more than 24 hours. Cetaceans have no vocal cords, so whales generate their songs by forcing air through their massive nasal cavities.
Whales within a large area sing the same song. All North Atlantic humpbacks sing the same song, and those of the North Pacific sing a different song. Each population's song changes slowly over a period of years without repeating.
Scientists are unsure of the purpose of whale songs. Only males sing, suggesting one purpose is to attract females. However, many of the whales observed to approach a singer are other males, often resulting in conflict. Singing may, therefore, be a challenge to other males. Some scientists have hypothesized the song may serve an echolocative function. During the feeding season, humpbacks make altogether different vocalizations for herding fish into their bubble nets.
Humpback whales have also been found to make a range of other social sounds to communicate, such as "grunts", "groans", "thwops", "snorts" and "barks".
Feeding and predation
Humpbacks feed primarily in summer and live off fat reserves during winter. They feed only rarely and opportunistically in their wintering waters. The humpback is an energetic hunter, taking krill and small schooling fish such as Atlantic herring, Atlantic salmon, capelin, and American sand lance, as well as Atlantic mackerel, pollock, and haddock in the North Atlantic. Krill and copepods have been recorded as prey species in Australian and Antarctic waters. Humpbacks hunt by direct attack or by stunning prey by hitting the water with pectoral fins or flukes.
The humpback has the most diverse feeding repertoire of all baleen whales. Its most inventive technique is known as bubble net feeding; a group of whales swims in a shrinking circle blowing bubbles below a school of prey. The shrinking ring of bubbles encircles the school and confines it in an ever-smaller cylinder. This ring can begin at up to 30 metres (98 ft) in diameter and involve the cooperation of a dozen animals. Using a crittercam attached to a whale's back, researchers found that some whales blow the bubbles, some dive deeper to drive fish toward the surface, and others herd prey into the net by vocalizing. The whales then suddenly swim upward through the "net", mouths agape, swallowing thousands of fish in one gulp. Plated grooves in the whale's mouth allow the creature to easily drain all the water initially taken in.
A study published in the April 26, 2013 issue of Science documents a new form of bubble-net feeding called lobtail feeding among a population of whales in the Northern Atlantic Ocean. This technique involves the whale slapping the surface of the ocean with his tail between one and four times before creating the bubble net. Using network-based diffusion analysis, the authors argue that the whales in this group learned the behavior socially from other whales in the group over a period of 27 years in response to a change in the primary form of prey.
Given scarring records, killer whales are thought to prey upon juvenile humpbacks, though this has never been witnessed. The result of these attacks is generally nothing more serious than some scarring of the skin, but young calves likely are sometimes killed.
Range and habitat
Humpbacks inhabit all major oceans, in a wide band running from the Antarctic ice edge to 77° N latitude. Whales were once thought not to be presented in the eastern Mediterranean or the Baltic Sea, but there have been increased appearances in both waters in recent years along within the waters of Skagerrak and Kattegat, as well as in Scandinavian fjords such as the Kvænangen where they had not been observed for long periods. They are migratory, spending summers in cooler, high-latitude waters and mating and calving in tropical and subtropical waters. An exception to this rule is a population in the Arabian Sea, which remains in these tropical waters year-round. Annual migrations of up to 25,000 kilometres (16,000 mi) are typical, making it one of the mammals' best-traveled species.
A large population spreads across the Hawaiian Islands every winter, ranging from the island of Hawaii in the south to Kure Atoll in the north. A 2007 study identified seven individuals wintering off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica as having traveled from the Antarctic—around 8,300 kilometres (5,200 mi). Identified by their unique tail patterns, these animals made the longest documented mammalian migration. In Australia, two main migratory populations have been identified, off the west and east coasts, respectively. These two populations are distinct, with only a few females in each generation crossing between the two groups. Camden Sound was newly established as a sanctuary for humpbacks.
In Panama and Costa Rica, Humpback whales come from both the Southern hemisphere, July–October with over 2,000 whales, and the Northern hemisphere, December–March with about 300 whales to breed and give birth.
South Pacific populations migrating off mainland New Zealand, Kermadec Islands and Tasmania are increasing, but in slower speeds than in Australian waters because of illegal whaling by the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
Some re-colonizing habitats are confirmed especially in North and South Atlantic (e.g. English and Irish coasts, North Sea and Wadden Sea etc.), South Pacific (e.g. New Zealand coasts and Niue), southern fiords of Chile and Peru (e.g. Gulf of Penas, Strait of Magellan, Beagle Channel), and in Asia. Various areas in Philippines such as in Babuyan Islands and Pasaleng Bay, Ryukyu Islands the Volcano Islands in Japan, Northern Mariana Islands, have been re-established as stable/growing wintering grounds while Vietnamese, Taiwanese, and Chinese coasts show slow or no obvious recovering yet. As the populations recover, concerns of entanglements and ship strikes are increasing such as off Japanese coasts where whales began to migrate off Japanese archipelagos and into Sea of Japan. Connections between these stocks and whales seen in Sea of Okhotsk, on Kamchatka coasts, and around Commander Islands have been studied.
Humpback whales were hunted as early as the 18th century, but distinguished by whalers as early as the first decades of the 17th century. By the 19th century, many nations (the United States in particular), were hunting the animal heavily in the Atlantic Ocean, and to a lesser extent in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The late-19th-century introduction of the explosive harpoon, though, allowed whalers to accelerate their take. This, along with hunting in the Antarctic Ocean beginning in 1904, sharply reduced whale populations. During the 20th century, over 200,000 humpbacks were estimated to have been taken, reducing the global population by over 90%, with North Atlantic populations estimated to have dropped to as low as 700 individuals. In 1946, the International Whaling Commission was founded to oversee the whaling industry. They imposed rules and regulations for hunting whales and set open and closed hunting seasons. To prevent extinction, the International Whaling Commission banned commercial humpback whaling in 1966. By then, the population had been reduced to around 5,000. That ban is still in force.
Prior to commercial whaling, populations could have reached 125,000. North Pacific kills alone are estimated at 28,000. The full toll is much higher. It is now known that the Soviet Union was deliberately under-recording its catches; the Soviet catch was reported at 2,820, whereas the true number is now believed to be over 48,000.
As of 2004, hunting of humpback whales was restricted to a few animals each year off the Caribbean island Bequia in the nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The take is not believed to threaten the local population. Japan had planned to kill 50 humpbacks in the 2007/08 season under its JARPA II research program, starting in November 2007. The announcement sparked global protests. After a visit to Tokyo by the chairman of the IWC, asking the Japanese for their co-operation in sorting out the differences between pro- and antiwhaling nations on the Commission, the Japanese whaling fleet agreed no humpback whales would be caught for the two years it would take for the IWC to reach a formal agreement.
In Japan, not only humpback, minkes, sperm, and many other smaller Odontoceti, but also including critically endangered species such as North Pacific right, western gray, and northern fin have been targets of illegal captures utilizing harpoons for dolphin hunts or intentionally drive whales into nets, and later reports to administrative organs or research institutions as cases of entanglements where fishermen tried their best to save whales. Humpback's meat can also be found on markets even today, and there had been a case in which it was scientifically revealed that humpbacks of unknown quantities with other species were illegally hunted in EEZ of anti-whaling nations such as off Mexico or South Africa, and so on.
The worldwide population is at least 80,000 humpback whales, with 18,000–20,000 in the North Pacific, about 12,000 in the North Atlantic, and over 50,000 in the Southern Hemisphere, down from a prewhaling population of 125,000.
In August 2008, the IUCN changed humpback's status from Vulnerable to Least Concern, although two subpopulations remain endangered. The United States is considering listing separate humpback populations, so smaller groups, such as North Pacific humpbacks, which are estimated to number 18,000–20,000 animals, might be delisted. This is made difficult by humpback's extraordinary migrations, which can extend the 5,157 miles (8,299 km) from Antarctica to Costa Rica. In Costa Rica, the Ballena Marine National Park is specially designed for protections of humpbacks.
This species is considered "least concern" from a conservation standpoint, as of 2008. This is an improvement from vulnerable in 1996 and endangered as recently as 1988. Most monitored stocks of humpback whales have rebounded well since the end of commercial whaling, such as the North Atlantic, where stocks are now believed to be approaching levels similar to those before hunting began. However, the species is considered endangered in some countries, including the United States.
Although much was learned about humpbacks from whaling, migratory patterns and social interactions were not well understood until two studies by R. Chittleborough and W. H. Dawbin in the 1960s. Roger Payne and Scott McVay made further studies of the species in 1971. Their analysis of whale songs led to worldwide media interest and convinced the public that whales were highly intelligent, aiding the antiwhaling advocates.
The Calambokidis et al. 2001 report provided the "first quantitative assessment of the migratory structure of humpback whales in the entire North Pacific basin."
The United States initiated a status review of the species on August 12, 2009, and is seeking public comment on potential changes to the species listing under the Endangered Species Act. Areas where population data are limited and the species may be at higher risk include the Arabian Sea, the western North Pacific Ocean, the west coast of Africa and parts of Oceania.
The U. S. Department of Commerce's commissioned 2008 report entitled "SPLASH: Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpback Whales in the North Pacific," noted that there are many challenges to determining the recovery of the previously over-harvested population of the Humpback Whale (North Pacific) because of the lack of accurate abundance estimates, the unexpected complexity of the structure of whale populations and their migratory movements between feeding and wintering areas. According to the 2008 SPLASH report, which was based on data collected between 2004 to 2006, there were between about 18,302 Humpback Whales in the entire North Pacific (Splash 2008:2-3). The SPLASH estimate is consistent with a moderate rate of recovery for a depleted population (SPLASH 2008:3) although it also considered to be a "dramatic increase in abundance" from other postwhaling period estimates" (post-1960s. In comparison to the estimate of 9,819 in the Calambokidis et al. 1997 report covering the period 1991-1993 this represents a four percent increase in population from 1993 to 2006 (SPLASH 2008:3).
Off the west coast of Canada, the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve which covers 3,400 square kilometres, is "a primary feeding habitat" of the Humpback Whale (North Pacific population) protected by Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA). Humpback Whale's critical habitat off the coast of British Columbia overlaps with tankers shipping route between Canada and its eastern trade partners. In 2005 the Humpback Whale (North Pacific population) was listed as threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA). In April 19, 2014 the Department of the Environment recommended an amendment to (SARA) to downgrade the status of the Humpback Whale off the coast of British Columbia from “threatened” to “species of special concern.” According to Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), the Humpback Whale (North Pacific population) has been increasing at about four per cent each year from 1992 to 2008. Although socio-economic costs and benefits were considered in their decision to downgrade the status of the whales, according to the University of British Columbia’s North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium's research director, the decision was based on biology not politics.
The United Kingdom, among other countries, designated the humpback as a priority species under the national Biodiversity Action Plan. The sanctuary provided by US National Parks, such as Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and Cape Hatteras National Seashore, among others, have also become major factors in sustaining populations.
Today, individuals are vulnerable to collisions with ships, entanglement in fishing gear, and noise pollution. Like other cetaceans, humpbacks can be injured by excessive noise. In the 19th century, two humpback whales were found dead near sites of repeated oceanic sub-bottom blasting, with traumatic injuries and fractures in the ears.
Humpback whales are generally curious about objects in their environments. Some individuals, referred to as "friendlies", approach whale-watching boats closely, often staying under or near the boat for many minutes. Because humpbacks are often easily approachable, curious, easily identifiable as individuals, and display many behaviors, they have become the mainstay of whale-watching tourism in many locations around the world. Hawaii has used the concept of "ecotourism" to use the species without killing them. This whale-watching business brings in a revenue of $20 million per year for the state's economy.
|North Atlantic||North Pacific||Southern Hemisphere|
|Summer||New England, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, the northern St. Lawrence River, the Snaefellsnes peninsula in the west of Iceland.||Bahía Solano and Nuquí in Colombia, California, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Isla Iguana in Panama.||Antarctica.|
|Winter||Samaná Province of the Dominican Republic, the Bay of Biscay France, Mona Passage off the coast of Puerto Rico||Hawaii, Baja, the Bahía de Banderas off Puerto Vallarta||Sydney, Byron Bay north of Sydney, Hervey Bay north of Brisbane, North and East of Cape Town, New Zealand, the Tongan islands, Victor Harbor and outlying beaches, Saint Helena in the South Atlantic.|
The Tay whale
In December 1883, a male humpback swam up the Firth of Tay in Scotland, past what was then the whaling port of Dundee. The whale was exhibited to the public by a local entrepreneur, John Woods, both locally and then as a touring exhibition which travelled to Edinburgh and London. The whale was dissected by professor John Struthers, who wrote seven papers on its anatomy, and then in 1889, a monograph on the humpback.
An albino humpback whale that travels up and down the east coast of Australia became famous in the local media on account of its extremely rare, all-white appearance. Migaloo is the only known all-white humpback whale  and is known to be a true albino. First sighted in 1991, and believed to be three to five years old at that time, Migaloo was named for an indigenous Australian word for "white fella". Migaloo was shown to be male in 2004 by analysis of sloughed skin samples. Because of the intense interest, environmentalists feared he was becoming distressed by the number of boats following him each day. In response, the Queensland and New South Wales governments introduce legislation each year to create a 500 m (1600-ft) exclusion zone around the whale.
Humphrey the Whale was twice rescued by The Marine Mammal Center and other concerned groups in California. In 1985, Humphrey swam into San Francisco Bay and then up the Sacramento River towards Rio Vista. Five years later, Humphrey returned and became stuck on a mudflat in San Francisco Bay immediately north of Sierra Point below the view of onlookers from the upper floors of the Dakin Building. He was pulled off the mudflat with a large cargo net and the help of the Coast Guard. Both times, he was successfully guided back to the Pacific Ocean using a "sound net" in which people in a flotilla of boats made unpleasant noises behind the whale by banging on steel pipes, a Japanese fishing technique known as oikami. At the same time, the attractive sounds of humpback whales preparing to feed were broadcast from a boat headed towards the open ocean. After leaving San Francisco Bay in 1990, Humphrey was seen only once, at the Farallon Islands in 1991.
Also recorded by the National Park Service, as above.
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Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Clapham et al. (1993) reported that available evidence supports the hypothesis that the western North Atlantic population can be considered a single panmictic population; individuals from different high-latitude feeding areas intermix in the breeding range. However, Allen et al. (1994) found that "regional differences in fluke pigmentation suggest that the western North Atlantic population includes a number of relatively isolated subunits, as suggested previously by photoidentification and DNA studies."
Within Mexico, whales wintering off the Revillagigedo Islands are weakly but significantly differentiated genetically from those along the American Pacific coast (Medrano-Gonzalez et al. 1995).
MtDNA data indicate that several distinctive stocks exist in the Southern Hemisphere, with a low level of gene flow among them; also, shared identical nucleotypes occur in the Northern and Southern hemispheres (Baker et al. 1998).