Wed, Oct 13, 2010 - Page 7 News List

Humpback whale sets long-distance record for mammals


A humpback whale has broken the world record for travel by any mammal, swimming at least 9,800km from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean in search of a mate, marine biologists reported yesterday.

The female humpback was first photographed among a group of whales at a breeding ground on Abrolhos Bank, off Brazil’s southeastern coast, on Aug. 7 1999.

By sheer chance, it was photographed more than two years later, on Sept. 21, 2001, by a commercial whale-watching tour at a breeding ground near the Ile Sainte Marie off the eastern coast of Madagascar. The whale was identified thanks to the distinctive shape of its tail and a pattern of spots on it.

“It is the longest documented movement by a mammal, about 400kms longer than the longest seasonal migration that has been reported,” according to the research, headed by Peter Stevick of the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine.

The trip is not just remarkable for the distance the whale covered, Stevick said.

It also raises exciting questions about the breeding habits of humpbacks, a species of which relatively little is known. Until now, it was thought that only males, rather than females, would be likely to wander such extreme distances in quest of a partner.

Humpbacks are known to be long-distance swimmers, but until now their migration patterns were thought to be between northern and southerly latitudes.

This discovery suggests that humpbacks may also have a migratory pattern that straddles longitudes, not latitudes. In other words, they could swim east-west to breed.

Further work is needed to investigate such theories, as this is just a solitary sighting.

However, if more marathon humpbacks are found, it could lead to a rethink of the species’ genetic profile, which in turn has an impact on conservation.

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