Humpback Whales of the Pitcairn Islands

Theme: Biodiversity, Ecology & Conservation

Primary Supervisor:

Michael Chadwick

Department of Geography, KCL

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Secondary Supervisor:

Terry Dawson

Department of Geography, KCL

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Project Description:

The humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) found around the Pitcairn Islands in the south-central Pacific Ocean are of scientific and conservation interest as a satellite group of the International Whaling Commission breeding sub-stock F2 from neighbouring French Polynesia. Whilst most humpback whale populations have recovered well from commercial whaling, the Oceania subpopulation has declined ~70% since 1942. As a result, they are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. The exact links between the humpback whales in the Pitcairn Islands and breeding sub-stock F2 are unknown due to the current lack of migratory and connectivity studies. Therefore, understanding key demographic factors is a crucial step toward conservation. The proposed project will collect photo-identification and genetic data to facilitate an assessment of connectivity to other sites in the Oceania region. These data will improve understanding of the population’s status, and the potential impacts of climate change need to enhance regional conservation efforts. With support from an international team of experts, this is an excellent opportunity to get involved in several research areas, including whale identification using video/photo images and hydrophone recordings of whale songs, and genetic and stable isotope analysis using traditional skin biopsies and blow sampling via drones for assessing DNA, diet, stress and pregnancy hormones, microbiomes and potentially many other biological compounds/indicators of the animal’s health and ecology. Advanced training will be provided by project partners at the Sea Mammal Research Unit, the University of St. Andrews and at the Slovenian Marine Mammal Society.

Policy Impact of Research:

The project will work with the island community (Pitcairn Tourism and Environment, Conservation and Natural Resources, local school, museum, fishing and diving groups) and cruise ship operators through presentations, debates and multi-stakeholder discussion forums. International beneficiaries include the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium (SPWRC).

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