400 Year Old Bones Shed New Insights Into Right Whales

What can a 400 year old northern right whale bone tell you? Apparently, a heck of a lot.

New research published in the journal Conservation Genetics was written up by the BBC just today about northern right whales.  These are the highly endangered species that migrates off of Florida’s coastline at this time of year. Traditionally we have explained their extreme rarity by citing extensive whaling and targeting of this species up until the turn of the century.  (In fact that is still the common explanation for their name “right whale” since they were the “right” whales to hunt.)  However, new research on whale bones from the 16th and 17th century actually refutes the idea that northern right whales were targeted or that their population’s diversity at the genetic level was effected by whaling.

Basque whaling ship wrecks and stations were discovered in the 1970’s and 218 whale bones recovered from the sites were identified for use in the study. Of 218 bones just one was a northern right whale and all others belonged to bowhead whales.  (Their close relatives within the Balaenidae family.)  While this suggests that this particular culture of whalers from Spain’s Basque region did not specifically attempt to target northern right whales, or that bowhead whales may have been easier to take or find in some way, it may also be a window into a larger pattern seen among whalers at the time – that they may not have targeted northern right whales at all.

Researchers also made the decision to look at diversity at the genetic level between the 400 year old bones and modern day northern right whales.  Across 27 sampled sequences the researchers did not find an appreciable amount of difference in sequence or a loss of diversity.

Their paper suggests that the population of whales from 400 years ago was no more diverse than current day northern right whales.  There are of course a few ways to interpret this and one of them is that whaling may not have had a large impact on their population or caused a genetic bottleneck effect that would be expected with heavy hunting and targeting of the species.

Instead the researchers think this may support a different explanation for northern right whale’s rarity and current endangered status: they may never have been a terrifically abundant species.  And, instead of whaling impacting their populations from a few thousand down to a few hundred, climate changes and resource changes may have impacted their species more.

I love that this paper attempts to use even very old resources to shed new light on current day problems so that we can truly understand the species we are attempting to conserve, but its foray into genetic diversity is as valuable as it is potentially flawed.  By using just one whale bone from the pool the sample size for comparison already sends up some red flags but I should really withhold until I can read the full article.  If anyone has access to the report and would be able to email a copy to me,  I would be eternally grateful.  Unfortunately my resources do not currently include Conservation Genetics.