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North Atlantic right whale growth and energetics Fortune, Sarah Marie Elizabeth


Management plans for North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) focus on preventing mortality from ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement. However, population recovery may also be limited by nutritional stress. I derived growth curves and quantified the food requirements of North Atlantic right whales by age, sex and reproductive state. I also compared their predicted needs with field estimates of prey consumption to evaluate the model predictions and consider whether different demographic groups of right whales might be nutritionally stressed. Energy requirements were estimated using a bioenergetics model that incorporated uncertainty in energy inputs and outputs. Consumption was estimated with prey samples taken near feeding whales in two critical feeding habitats—Cape Cod Bay (n=28 net collections) and the Bay of Fundy (n=19 optical plankton counts). Model predictions indicate that mothers invest heavily in their calves, which effectively double in size and attain ~73% of their mother’s length by weaning at one year of age. Calves gained an average of ~1.7 cm and ~34 kg per day while nursing during this rapid growth phase. Body growth was best described using a two-phased Gompertz model and could not be fit using any of the single continuous growth models commonly used for other mammals. Energetically, calves required the least energy (~1129 MJ/day) and lactating females required the most (~2934 MJ/day). Adult males and non-reproductive females fell in between at ~1140 and ~1217 MJ/day respectively. Estimates of energy requirements for juveniles, adult males, pregnant and non-reproductive females compared favorably with estimates of actual prey consumption in their winter habitat (i.e., they differed by ≤15%), suggesting that the model was reliable. However, lactating females appear to obtain considerably less (~45%) of their predicted daily energy requirements in Cape Cod Bay, and almost met their needs in the Bay of Fundy (obtaining ~87% of daily requirements). This suggests that lactating females may be experiencing an energy deficit, which may affect reproductive rates and slow population recovery. Nutritional stress may thus be limiting the recovery of North Atlantic right whales.

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