DNA evidence for historic population size and past ecosystem impacts of gray whales.

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2007 Sep 11;104(38):15162-7. Epub 2007 Sep 11.

Department of Biological Sciences, Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University, 120 Oceanview Boulevard, Pacific Grove, CA 93950, USA.

Ecosystem restoration may require returning threatened populations of ecologically pivotal species to near their former abundances, but it is often difficult to estimate historic population size of species that have been heavily exploited. Eastern Pacific gray whales play a key ecological role in their Arctic feeding grounds and are widely thought to have returned to their prewhaling abundance. Recent mortality spikes might signal that the population has reached long-term carrying capacity, but an alternative is that this decline was due to shifting climatic conditions on Arctic feeding grounds. We used a genetic approach to estimate prewhaling abundance of gray whales and report DNA variability at 10 loci that is typical of a population of approximately 76,000-118,000 individuals, approximately three to five times more numerous than today's average census size of 22,000. Coalescent simulations indicate these estimates may include the entire Pacific metapopulation, suggesting that our average measurement of approximately 96,000 individuals was probably distributed between the eastern and currently endangered western Pacific populations. These levels of genetic variation suggest the eastern population is at most at 28-56% of its historical abundance and should be considered depleted. If used to inform management, this would halve acceptable human-caused mortality for this population from 417 to 208 per year. Potentially profound ecosystem impacts may have resulted from a decline from 96,000 gray whales to the current population. At previous levels, gray whales may have seasonally resuspended 700 million cubic meters of sediment, as much as 12 Yukon Rivers, and provided food to a million sea birds.

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Source
http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0706056104DOI Listing
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1975855PMC
September 2007
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