Shaped by Their Environment: Variation in Blue Whale Morphology across Three Productive Coastal Ecosystems

D. R. Barlow, K. C. Bierlich, W. K. Oestreich, G. Chiang, J. W. Durban, J. A. Goldbogen, D. W. Johnston, M. S. Leslie, M. J. Moore, J. P. Ryan, L. G. Torres

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Species ecology and life history patterns are often reflected in animal morphology. Blue whales are globally dis-tributed, with distinct populations that feed in different productive coastal regions worldwide. Thus, they provide an oppor-tunity to investigate how regional ecosystem characteristics may drive morphological differences within a species. Here, we compare physical and biological oceanography of three different blue whale foraging grounds: (1) Monterey Bay, Califor-nia, USA; (2) the South Taranaki Bight (STB), Aotearoa New Zealand; and (3) the Corcovado Gulf, Chile. Additionally, we compare the morphology of blue whales from these regions using unoccupied aircraft imagery. Monterey Bay and the Cor-covado Gulf are seasonally productive and support the migratory life history strategy of the Eastern North Pacific (ENP) and Chilean blue whale populations, respectively. In contrast, the New Zealand blue whale population remains in the less productive STB year-round. All three populations were indistinguishable in total body length. However, New Zealand blue whales were in significantly higher body condition despite lower regional productivity, potentially attributable to their non-migratory strategy that facilitates lower risk of spatiotemporal misalignment with more consistently available foraging op-portunities. Alternatively, the migratory strategy of the ENP and Chilean populations may be successful when their pres-ence on the foraging grounds temporally aligns with abundant prey availability. We document differences in skull and fluke morphology between populations, which may relate to different feeding behaviors adapted to region-specific prey and habi-tat characteristics. These morphological features may represent a trade-off between maneuverability for prey capture and efficient long-distance migration. As oceanographic patterns shift relative to long-term means under climate change, these blue whale populations may show different vulnerabilities due to differences in migratory phenology and feeding behavior between regions.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberobad039
JournalIntegrative Organismal Biology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Plant Science


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