Geographical variation in the body size of adult female sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) – an example of McNab’s resource rule?

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De Gruyter


University of Cape Town

This study investigates possible regional variations in size composition of adult female sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) using data from 3302 pregnant individuals taken on Soviet whaling expeditions to the Southern Hemisphere 1961/62–1974/75. A general linear model (GLM) was used to take the covariates of expedition, latitude and ocean basin into account. The average body size decreased from south to north in each ocean basin, with the biggest decrease (about 200 cm) in the Indian Ocean; followed by the Pacific Ocean (about 110 cm), and the Atlantic Ocean (about 80 cm). Independent data confirm the small size of female/immature sperm whales in some tropical areas of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The mechanism responsible for this geographic variation in sperm whale growth could reflect culturally transmitted differences in foraging behaviour between clans of female/immature sperm whales in response to differing availabilities of prey resources by geographical region – McNab’s resource rule. However there is little available information for such a mechanism to be readily identifiable. Although data for oceanic squids (sperm whale’s main source of food) are lacking, there is evidence that the individual sizes of neritic species are positively correlated with latitude. Hence feeding in equatorial regions may be energetically more demanding due to smaller individual prey size, with consequent effects on growth rate.