Secrets of the Deep: The Molecular Genetics of Cryptic Beaked Whales
Thompson, Kirsten Freja
Date: 24 January 2017
University of Exeter
PhD by Publication in Biological Sciences
Beaked whales are comparatively unknown social mammals due to their deep-ocean distribution and elusive habits. The deep-ocean is the largest biome on Earth and the final frontier for human expansion. Since their first discovery, beaked whales have remained largely hidden from science. In this era of rapid technological advancement, ...
Beaked whales are comparatively unknown social mammals due to their deep-ocean distribution and elusive habits. The deep-ocean is the largest biome on Earth and the final frontier for human expansion. Since their first discovery, beaked whales have remained largely hidden from science. In this era of rapid technological advancement, genetic and genomic methods are key tools for population biologists and are particularly useful in describing rarely seen species. Using DNA-barcoding and nuclear markers, the publications in this thesis provide data on the distribution and external appearance of two species of beaked whale: the spade-toothed (Mesoplodon traversii) and Derinayagala’s whale (Mesoplodon hotaula). These whales were previously known from only a handful of tissue and bone specimens. Long-term efforts have facilitated the collection of samples of Gray’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon grayi) and we have used shot-gun sequencing to characterise the mitochondrial genome and isolate species-specific nuclear microsatellite loci. Using genetic species and sex identification, together with museum specimens and multivariate analyses, we provide clear evidence of sexual dimorphism in cranial dimensions and geographic variation in external morphology. No genetic differentiation was evident in Gray’s beaked whales across a large study area (~ 6,000 km). With a large female effective population size (Ne) and genetic homogeneity, we hypothesise that gene flow is facilitated by large-scale oceanographic features, such as the sub-tropical convergence. Genetic kinship analyses within Gray’s beaked whale groups suggest that the whales that strand together are not related. Both sexes disperse from their parents and these groups are not formed through the retention of kin. These results are consistent with a ‘fission-fusion’ social system that has been observed in some oceanic dolphin species. Taken together, these data provide the first insights into the population dynamics, dispersal and social organisation in Gray’s beaked whales. These publications highlight the value of using genetics alongside other techniques to describe inter- and intraspecific diversity. For beaked whales, the dead can tell us much about the living.
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