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Larger body size leads to greater female beluga whale ovarian reproductive activity at the southern periphery of their range


Ferguson, Steven et al. (2022), Larger body size leads to greater female beluga whale ovarian reproductive activity at the southern periphery of their range, Dryad, Dataset,


Identification of phenotypic characteristics in reproductively successful individuals provides important insights into the evolutionary processes that cause range shifts due to environmental change. Female beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) from the Baffin Bay region (BB) of the Canadian Arctic in the core area of the species’ geographic range have larger body size than their conspecifics at the southern range periphery in Hudson Bay (HB). We investigated the mechanism for this north and south divergence as it relates to ovarian reproductive activity (ORA = total corpora) that combines morphometric data with ovarian corpora counted from female reproductive tracts. Our study aim was to assess the relative influence of age and body size of female beluga whale on ovarian reproductive activity in the two populations. Female beluga whale ORA increased more quickly with age (63% partial variation explained) in BB than in HB (41%). In contrast, body length in HB female beluga whales accounted for considerably more of the total variation (12 vs 1%) in ORA compared to BB whales. We speculate that female HB beluga whale ORA was more strongly linked with body length due to higher population density resulting in food competition that favors the energetic advantages of larger body size during seasonal food limitations. Understanding the evolutionary mechanism of how ORA varies across a species’ range will assist conservation efforts in anticipating and mitigating future challenges associated with a warming planet.


The dataset included 172 female reproductive tracts with at least one corpus: 41 from BB and 131 from HB. To create a complete dataset required for robust statistical testing (Moritz & Bartz-Beielstein 2017), missing length and age data were replaced with the median value of all whales in each population. The five BB whales with missing age were assigned 20 years-of-age and the 6 HB whales, 26 years-of-age. Similarly, the 6 BB whales with missing length were assigned 354 cm and the 17 HB whales with missing length, 327 cm. We conducted post-mortem gross examinations of female reproductive tracts, collected from 17 northern communities within the Eastern Canadian Arctic from 1989 to 2014 (Fig. 1). Ageing was based on examination of dentine and cementum growth layer groups in teeth (Waugh et al. 2018). Whale standard length was measured in the field according to a standard protocol, measured from the middle of the fluke to the tip of the rostrum (American Society of Mammalogists, 1961). We combined reproductive morphology data for two northern populations (Cumberland Sound and high Arctic) into a BB region based on a similar growth-age-reproduction relationship (Ferguson et al. 2020). For consistency in terminology, we refer to BB and HB as populations while recognizing that each region likely comprises a number of sub-populations (Skovrind et al. 2021).

Sample processing is described in more detail in Ferguson et al. (2020); briefly, ovaries were excised, weighed, measured, and preserved in 10% neutral-buffered formalin. For each ovary, we recorded the number of CLs and CAs (Best, 1968). In cetaceans CLs and CAs form distinct and persistent features, accumulating within the ovary (Perrin et al. 1976) as a record of a female’s potential reproductive history (Slijper 1962; Collet and Harrison et al., 1972; but see Dabin et al. 2008). Corpora assessments were performed by one reader to minimize bias in the subjective determination of accessory corpora (Harrison, 1977). As a measure of ORA, we counted all existing CLs and CAs within the beluga whales’ ovaries. For whales with only one ovary sampled (23 of 97 whales from BB and 113 of 210 whales from HB), we doubled the corpora count since beluga whales do not appear to exhibit a side-dominance in ovarian function (Robeck et al. 2010; Sheldon et al. 2019).

Usage Notes

Excel file: Whale ID, Group (northern or southern), Population (High Arctic, Cumberland Sound, Hudson Bay), Year, Age, Body length, Total corpora


Fisheries and Oceans Canada