Long-finned pilot whale population diversity and structure in Atlantic waters assessed through biogeochemical and genetic markers

Silvia S. Monteiro*, Paula Mendez-Fernandez, Stuart Piertney, Colin F. Moffat, Marisa Ferreira, Jose V. Vingada, Alfredo Lopez, Andrew Brownlow, Paul Jepson, Bjarni Mikkelsen, Misty Niemeyer, Jose Carlos Carvalho, Graham J. Pierce

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Integration of ecological and genetic approaches is a particularly powerful strategy to identify natural population diversity and structure over different timescales. To investigate the potential occurrence of population differentiation in long-finned pilot whales Globicephala melas in the North Atlantic, both biogeochemical (fatty acids and stable isotopes) and genetic (mitochondrial DNA) markers were analyzed in animals from 4 regions within the North Atlantic: the northwestern Iberian Peninsula, the United Kingdom, the Faroe Islands and the United States of America. Genetic data revealed strong regional levels of divergence, although analysis of molecular variance revealed no differentiation between the northeastern and northwestern Atlantic. Results from biogeochemical tracers supported previous dietary studies, revealing geographic and ontogenetic dietary variation in pilot whales. Fatty acids revealed ecological differentiation between all regions analyzed, while stable isotopes showed an overlap between some sampling regions. These results suggest that both ecological and genetic factors may drive the levels of pilot whale differentiation in the North Atlantic. The ecological differentiation observed may be related to the exploitation of different foraging niches (e.g. oceanic vs. coastal), which can be highly influenced by prey distributions or oceanographic phenomena. Genetic differentiation may result from historical or contemporary processes or even limited dispersal mediated through the social structure displayed by this species and potential foraging specialization. These results highlight some problems when assessing population structure across multiple markers and the ecological vs. evolutionary timescales over which differences may accumulate. Notwithstanding, the data provide preliminary information about pilot whale diversity and stocks in the North Atlantic, giving essential baseline information for conservation plans.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)243-257
Number of pages15
JournalMarine Ecology Progress Series
Publication statusPublished - 29 Sept 2015

Bibliographical note

Cetacean samples were collected under the auspices of stranding monitoring programs run by the Sociedade Portuguesa de Vida Selvagem, the Coordinadora
para o Estudio dos Mamíferos Mariños (supported by the regional government Xunta de Galicia), the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme and the
Scottish Agriculture College Veterinary Science Division (jointly funded by Defra and the Devolved Governments of Scotland and Wales), the Marine Mammals Research Group of the Institute of Marine Research (Norway), the Museum of
Natural History of the Faroe Islands and the International Fund for Animal Welfare Marine Mammal Rescue and Research Program (USA). The authors thank all the members of these institutions and organizations for their assistance
with data and sample collection. S.S.M., P.M.F. and M.F. were supported by PhD grants from the Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (POPH/FSE ref SFRH/BD/ 38735/ 2007, SFRH/BD/36766/2007 and SFRH/BD/30240/ 2006, respectively). A.L. was supported by a postdoctoral grant from the Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (ref SFRH/BPD/82407/2011). The work related to strandings and
tissue collection in Portugal was partially supported by the SafeSea project EEAGrants PT 0039 (supported by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA Financial Mechanism), the MarPro project Life09 NAT/PT/000038 (funded by the European Union program LIFE+) and the project CetSenti FCT RECI/AAG-GLO/0470/2012 (FCOMP- 01-0124-FEDER-027472) (funded by the program COMPETE and the Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia). G.J.P. thanks the University of Aveiro and Caixa Geral de Depósitos (Portugal) for financial support. The authors acknowledge the assistance of the chemical analysts at Marine Scotland Science with the fatty acid analysis.


  • stable isotopes
  • fatty acids
  • mitochondrial DNA
  • marine mammal
  • stock structure
  • globicephala melas
  • carbon-isotope fractionation
  • acid signature analysis
  • Western North-Atlantic
  • bottle-nosed dolphins
  • globicephala-melas
  • stable-isotopes
  • mitochondrial-DNA
  • habitat preferences
  • phocoena-phocoena
  • Harbor porpoises


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