Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Humpback whales are gathering in huge groups, and nobody knows why

March 15, 2017

by Chuck Bednar
Although humpback whales are not typically known to be social creatures, preferring to swim alone or in small groups most of the time, experts have spotted so-called “super-groups” of the aquatic mammals during three recent research cruises, according to a new study.

Writing in the journal PLOS One, Ken Findlay of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) and his colleagues said that they had found 22 separate instances of between 20 and 200 whales gathering off the coast of South Africa during voyages in 2011, 2014 and 2015.

As Gizmodo and ScienceAlert reported this week, such large gatherings of humpbacks are rare. The creatures tend to prefer traveling in groups of seven or less. There had previously been only one recorded instance of a gathering of more than 20 whales, and that was thought to be multiple smaller groups traveling close together.

“I've never seen anything like this,” Findlay, a zoologist and marine biologist at CPUT, told New Scientist during an interview on Friday. “It’s possible that the behavior was occurring but just not where it was visible. Because there were so few of them, we may not have seen it.”

Odd behavior may actually be good news, say experts

In their study, he and his fellow researchers called the behavior “novel and intense,” adding that it is “a relatively recent behavior exhibited by these whales” and that no such large groups have been spotted “elsewhere in low or mid-latitudes during Southern Hemisphere... migrations.”

Findlay’s team believes that the whales may be adapting in response to the changing availability of prey, New Scientist said– and it isn’t just the size of their hunting groups that have gotten the attention of scientists. These “super-groups” were found far beyond the whales’ normal hunting grounds in the southern polar region of Antarctica, thousands of kilometers to the south.

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