Patterns of male reproductive success in a highly promiscuous whale species: the endangered North Atlantic right whale Academic Article uri icon

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  • Parentage analyses of baleen whales are rare, and although mating systems have been hypothesized for some species, little data on realized male reproductive success are available and the patterns of male reproductive success have remained elusive for most species. Here we combine over 20 years of photo-identification data with high-resolution genetic data for the majority of individual North Atlantic right whales to assess paternity in this endangered species. There was significant skew in male reproductive success compared to what would be expected if mating was random (P < 0.001). The difference was due to an excess of males assigned zero paternities, a deficiency of males assigned one paternity, and an excess of males assigned as fathers for multiple calves. The variance in male reproductive success was high relative to other aquatically mating marine mammals, but was low relative to mammals where the mating system is based on resource- and/or mate-defence polygyny. These results are consistent with previous data suggesting that the right whale mating system represents one of the most intense examples of sperm competition in mammals, but that sperm competition on its own does not allow for the same degree of polygyny as systems where males can control access to resources and/or mates. The age distribution of assigned fathers was significantly biased towards older males (P < 0.05), with males not obtaining their first paternity until approximately 15 years of age, which is almost twice the average age of first fertilization in females (8 years), suggesting that mate competition is preventing younger males from reproducing. The uneven distribution of paternities results in a lower effective population size in this species that already has one of the lowest reported levels of genetic diversity, which may further inhibit reproductive success through mate incompatibility of genetically similar individuals.


  • MARX, MK
  • SLAY, CK
  • White, Bradley

publication date

  • December 2007