Molecular insights into the historic demography of bowhead whales: Understanding the evolutionary basis of contemporary management practices

C. D. Phillips, J. I. Hoffman, J. C. George, R. S. Suydam, R. M. Huebinger, J. C. Patton, J. W. Bickham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Patterns of genetic variation observed within species reflect evolutionary histories that include signatures of past demography. Understanding the demographic component of species' history is fundamental to informed management because changes in effective population size affect response to environmental change and evolvability, the strength of genetic drift, and maintenance of genetic variability. Species experiencing anthropogenic population reductions provide valuable case studies for understanding the genetic response to demographic change because historic changes in the census size are often well documented. A classic example is the bowhead whale, Balaena mysticetus, which experienced dramatic population depletion due to commercial whaling in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Consequently, we analyzed a large multi-marker dataset of bowhead whales using a variety of analytical methods, including extended Bayesian skyline analysis and approximate Bayesian computation, to characterize genetic signatures of both ancient and contemporary demographic histories. No genetic signature of recent population depletion was recovered through any analysis incorporating realistic mutation assumptions, probably due to the combined influences of long generation time, short bottleneck duration, and the magnitude of population depletion. In contrast, a robust signal of population expansion was detected around 70,000 years ago, followed by a population decline around 15,000 years ago. The timing of these events coincides to a historic glacial period and the onset of warming at the end of the last glacial maximum, respectively. By implication, climate driven long-term variation in Arctic Ocean productivity, rather than recent anthropogenic disturbance, appears to have been the primary driver of historic bowhead whale demography. This study reports on a demographic reconstruction of the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) using multiple genetic markers. The bowhead is a large and long-lived marine mammal species that has been hunted by Inuit communities for many centuries. A dynamic demographic history is reported in which connections between life-history characteristics and ecosystem variability over time are implicated as major demographic determinants, which provides deep historic context to current management strategies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)18-37
Number of pages20
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2013


  • Approximate Bayesian computation
  • Bottleneck
  • Bowhead whale
  • Generation time
  • Historic demography
  • Mutation rate

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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