Population Genetics of Bowhead Whales (<i>Baleana mysticetus</i>) in the Western Arctic


  • Geof H. Givens
  • Ryan M. Huebinger
  • John C. Patton
  • Lianne D. Postma
  • Melissa Lindsay
  • Robert S. Suydam
  • John C. George
  • Cole W. Matson
  • J.W. Bickham




population structure, temporal substructure, Hardy-Weinberg disequilibrium, genetic bottleneck, conservation, bowhead whale, Bering, Beaufort, Chukchi, genetic analysis, population differentiation, Alaska


Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas experienced a severe reduction as a result of commercial whaling in the 19th century. Since the cessation of commercial whaling, the population has recovered to a size that is approaching pre-whaling estimates. Inupiat and Yupik communities in northern and western Alaska hunt these Western Arctic (WA) bowheads along their migratory path during spring and fall. This hunting is regulated by the International Whaling Commission. Recent but preliminary analysis of available genetic data (207 whales and 10 microsatellite markers) raised the question of the presence of multiple, genetically distinct populations within the WA bowheads. Here we re-examined this question on the basis of a study of 414 whales and 22 newly developed microsatellite loci. We identified widespread departures from Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium; however, we were unable to detect significant evidence of multiple genetic populations within the WA bowheads that could explain this Hardy-Weinberg disequilibrium, particularly when compared to the strength of evidence for differentiation between WA bowheads and other populations from distant regions such as the Okhotsk Sea and eastern Canada. There was conclusive evidence of genetic differentiation among the three regions. The statistical rejection of panmixia within the WA improves our understanding of bowhead whale biology, and the lack of evidence for multiple populations within the WA enables risk-averse management of aboriginal hunting of Western Arctic bowhead whales.