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1.  Genetic and historic evidence for climate-driven population fragmentation in a top cetacean predator: the harbour porpoises in European water 
Recent climate change has triggered profound reorganization in northeast Atlantic ecosystems, with substantial impact on the distribution of marine assemblages from plankton to fishes. However, assessing the repercussions on apex marine predators remains a challenging issue, especially for pelagic species. In this study, we use Bayesian coalescent modelling of microsatellite variation to track the population demographic history of one of the smallest temperate cetaceans, the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) in European waters. Combining genetic inferences with palaeo-oceanographic and historical records provides strong evidence that populations of harbour porpoises have responded markedly to the recent climate-driven reorganization in the eastern North Atlantic food web. This response includes the isolation of porpoises in Iberian waters from those further north only approximately 300 years ago with a predominant northward migration, contemporaneous with the warming trend underway since the ‘Little Ice Age’ period and with the ongoing retreat of cold-water fishes from the Bay of Biscay. The extinction or exodus of harbour porpoises from the Mediterranean Sea (leaving an isolated relict population in the Black Sea) has lacked a coherent explanation. The present results suggest that the fragmentation of harbour distribution range in the Mediterranean Sea was triggered during the warm ‘Mid-Holocene Optimum’ period (approx. 5000 years ago), by the end of the post-glacial nutrient-rich ‘Sapropel’ conditions that prevailed before that time.
PMCID: PMC2981983  PMID: 20444724
cetacean; climate change; habitat fragmentation; population genetics; coalescence
2.  A European Melting Pot of Harbour Porpoise in the French Atlantic Coasts Inferred from Mitochondrial and Nuclear Data 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(9):e44425.
Field surveys have reported a global shift in harbour porpoise distribution in European waters during the last 15 years, including a return to the Atlantic coasts of France. In this study, we analyzed genetic polymorphisms at a fragment of the mitochondrial control region (mtDNA CR) and 7 nuclear microsatellite loci, for 52 animals stranded and by-caught between 2000 and 2010 along the Atlantic coasts of France. The analysis of nuclear and mitochondrial loci provided contrasting results. The mtDNA revealed two genetically distinct groups, one closely related to the Iberian and African harbour porpoises, and the second related to individuals from the more northern waters of Europe. In contrast, nuclear polymorphisms did not display such a distinction. Nuclear markers suggested that harbour porpoises behaved as a randomly mating population along the Atlantic coasts of France. The difference between the two kinds of markers can be explained by differences in their mode of inheritance, the mtDNA being maternally inherited in contrast to nuclear loci that are bi-parentally inherited. Our results provide evidence that a major proportion of the animals we sampled are admixed individuals from the two genetically distinct populations previously identified along the Iberian coasts and in the North East Atlantic. The French Atlantic coasts are clearly the place where these two previously separated populations of harbour porpoises are now admixing. The present shifts in distribution of harbour porpoises along this coast is likely caused by habitat changes that will need to be further studied.
PMCID: PMC3440431  PMID: 22984507
3.  Population structure of harbour porpoises Phocoena phocoena in the seas around the UK and adjacent waters. 
The population structure of harbour porpoises from British and adjacent waters was studied by examining variability in a 200 bp (base pair) section of the control region of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) extracted from 327 animals. This region contained 20 variable sites giving rise to 24 different haplotypes. Mean nucleotide diversity between all pairs of haplotypes was 0.81% (range 0-4%). The most common haplotype occurred in 63% of the samples and was recorded in all geographical areas; several other haplotypes were present in two or more of the sampling locations. This suggests considerable historical interconnections among populations, probably through gene flow. However, there were significant differences (p < 0.05) as determined by AMOVA (Analysis of Molecular Variance, Excoffier et al. 1992), between porpoises from the northern and southern North Sea, and between the northern North Sea and the Celtic/Irish Sea. The differences were predominantly due to variation among females. This sex-related difference in population genetic structure suggests that males disperse more than females. This has important consequences for evaluating the consequences of incidental catches of porpoises by fisheries in these seas since there may be a greater impact on local populations than is implied by simple calculations of mortality.
PMCID: PMC1688231  PMID: 9061964
4.  Evidence for infanticide in bottlenose dolphins: an explanation for violent interactions with harbour porpoises? 
Most harbour porpoises found dead on the north-east coast of Scotland show signs of attack by sympatric bottlenose dolphins, but the reason(s) for these violent interactions remain(s) unclear. Post-mortem examinations of stranded bottlenose dolphins indicate that five out of eight young calves from this same area were also killed by bottlenose dolphins. These data, together with direct observations of an aggressive interaction between an adult bottlenose dolphin and a dead bottlenose dolphin calf, provide strong evidence for infanticide in this population. The similarity in the size range of harbour porpoises and dolphin calves that showed signs of attack by bottlenose dolphins suggests that previously reported interspecific interactions could be related to this infanticidal behaviour. These findings appear to provide the first evidence of infanticide in cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). We suggest that infanticide must be considered as a factor shaping sociality in this and other species of cetaceans, and may have serious consequences for the viability of small populations.
PMCID: PMC1689180  PMID: 9699310
5.  The Stranding Anomaly as Population Indicator: The Case of Harbour Porpoise Phocoena phocoena in North-Western Europe 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(4):e62180.
Ecological indicators for monitoring strategies are expected to combine three major characteristics: ecological significance, statistical credibility, and cost-effectiveness. Strategies based on stranding networks rank highly in cost-effectiveness, but their ecological significance and statistical credibility are disputed. Our present goal is to improve the value of stranding data as population indicator as part of monitoring strategies by constructing the spatial and temporal null hypothesis for strandings. The null hypothesis is defined as: small cetacean distribution and mortality are uniform in space and constant in time. We used a drift model to map stranding probabilities and predict stranding patterns of cetacean carcasses under H0 across the North Sea, the Channel and the Bay of Biscay, for the period 1990–2009. As the most common cetacean occurring in this area, we chose the harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena for our modelling. The difference between these strandings expected under H0 and observed strandings is defined as the stranding anomaly. It constituted the stranding data series corrected for drift conditions. Seasonal decomposition of stranding anomaly suggested that drift conditions did not explain observed seasonal variations of porpoise strandings. Long-term stranding anomalies increased first in the southern North Sea, the Channel and Bay of Biscay coasts, and finally the eastern North Sea. The hypothesis of changes in porpoise distribution was consistent with local visual surveys, mostly SCANS surveys (1994 and 2005). This new indicator could be applied to cetacean populations across the world and more widely to marine megafauna.
PMCID: PMC3632559  PMID: 23614031
6.  Harbour Porpoises Phocoena phocoena in the Eastern Scheldt: A Resident Stock or Trapped by a Storm Surge Barrier? 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(3):e56932.
Coastal protection measures are planned and executed worldwide to combat the effects of global warming and climate change, in particular the acceleration of sea level rise, higher storm surge flooding and extensive coastal inundation. The extent to which these defensive measures may impact coastal and estuarine ecosystems is still poorly understood. Since the building of a storm surge barrier, movement of harbour porpoises Phocoena phocoena in and out of the Eastern Scheldt tidal bay (SW-Netherlands) may be limited. To measure residency, porpoises stranded along the Dutch North Sea coast between 2006 and 2008 were sampled for muscle (n = 102) and bone tissue (n = 118), of which 9 muscle (8.8%) and 12 bone samples (10.2%) were collected from animals stranded within the Eastern Scheldt. Stable carbon (δ13C) was analysed to get insight into the habitat use and residency of porpoises in the Eastern Scheldt. Our data showed significantly higher δ13C values in the muscle of porpoises stranded within the Eastern Scheldt (µ = −17.7‰, SD = 0.4‰) compared to animals stranded along the Dutch coast (µ = −18.3‰, SD = 0.5‰). This suggests that most porpoises stranded in the Eastern Scheldt foraged there for a longer period. The distinct δ13C signature of animals from the Eastern Scheldt was not observed in bone tissue, suggesting a relatively recent shift in habitat use rather than life-long residency of porpoises within the Eastern Scheldt. The high number of strandings within the Eastern Scheldt suggests a higher mortality rate compared to the Dutch coastal zone. Our study indicates that along with other changes in the physical environment, the storm surge barrier may play an important role in determining the residency of porpoises in the Eastern Scheldt, and that the area might act as an ecological trap for porpoises entering it.
PMCID: PMC3590242  PMID: 23483892
7.  Long-term feeding ecology and habitat use in harbour porpoises Phocoena phocoena from Scandinavian waters inferred from trace elements and stable isotopes 
BMC Ecology  2007;7:1.
We investigated the feeding ecology and habitat use of 32 harbour porpoises by-caught in 4 localities along the Scandinavian coast from the North Sea to the Barents Sea using time-integrative markers: stable isotopes (δ13C, δ15N) and trace elements (Zn, Cu, Fe, Se, total Hg and Cd), in relation to habitat characteristics (bathymetry) and geographic position (latitude).
Among the trace elements analysed, only Cd, with an oceanic specific food origin, was found to be useful as an ecological tracer. All other trace elements studied were not useful, most likely because of physiological regulation and/or few specific sources in the food web. The δ13C, δ15N signatures and Cd levels were highly correlated with each other, as well as with local bathymetry and geographic position (latitude). Variation in the isotopic ratios indicated a shift in harbour porpoise's feeding habits from pelagic prey species in deep northern waters to more coastal and/or demersal prey in the relatively shallow North Sea and Skagerrak waters. This result is consistent with stomach content analyses found in the literature. This shift was associated with a northward Cd-enrichment which provides further support to the Cd 'anomaly' previously reported in polar waters and suggests that porpoises in deep northern waters include Cd-contaminated prey in their diet, such as oceanic cephalopods.
As stable isotopes and Cd provide information in the medium and the long term respectively, the spatial variation found, shows that harbour porpoises experience different ecological regimes during the year along the Scandinavian coasts, adapting their feeding habits to local oceanographic conditions, without performing extensive migration.
PMCID: PMC1781931  PMID: 17229317
8.  Rod Monochromacy and the Coevolution of Cetacean Retinal Opsins 
PLoS Genetics  2013;9(4):e1003432.
Cetaceans have a long history of commitment to a fully aquatic lifestyle that extends back to the Eocene. Extant species have evolved a spectacular array of adaptations in conjunction with their deployment into a diverse array of aquatic habitats. Sensory systems are among those that have experienced radical transformations in the evolutionary history of this clade. In the case of vision, previous studies have demonstrated important changes in the genes encoding rod opsin (RH1), short-wavelength sensitive opsin 1 (SWS1), and long-wavelength sensitive opsin (LWS) in selected cetaceans, but have not examined the full complement of opsin genes across the complete range of cetacean families. Here, we report protein-coding sequences for RH1 and both color opsin genes (SWS1, LWS) from representatives of all extant cetacean families. We examine competing hypotheses pertaining to the timing of blue shifts in RH1 relative to SWS1 inactivation in the early history of Cetacea, and we test the hypothesis that some cetaceans are rod monochomats. Molecular evolutionary analyses contradict the “coastal” hypothesis, wherein SWS1 was pseudogenized in the common ancestor of Cetacea, and instead suggest that RH1 was blue-shifted in the common ancestor of Cetacea before SWS1 was independently knocked out in baleen whales (Mysticeti) and in toothed whales (Odontoceti). Further, molecular evidence implies that LWS was inactivated convergently on at least five occasions in Cetacea: (1) Balaenidae (bowhead and right whales), (2) Balaenopteroidea (rorquals plus gray whale), (3) Mesoplodon bidens (Sowerby's beaked whale), (4) Physeter macrocephalus (giant sperm whale), and (5) Kogia breviceps (pygmy sperm whale). All of these cetaceans are known to dive to depths of at least 100 m where the underwater light field is dim and dominated by blue light. The knockout of both SWS1 and LWS in multiple cetacean lineages renders these taxa rod monochromats, a condition previously unknown among mammalian species.
Author Summary
The emergence of Cetacea (whales, dolphins, porpoises) represents a profound transition in the history of life. Living cetaceans have evolved a spectacular array of adaptations in association with their return to aquatic habitats. Aquatic environments impose challenging constraints on sensory systems, including vision, and the cetacean eye exhibits both anatomical and molecular specializations that enhance underwater sight. Most mammals have one photopigment (RH1) for dim-light vision and two photopigments (long wavelength-sensitive opsin [LWS], short wavelength-sensitive opsin [SWS1]) for daytime, color vision. By contrast, cetaceans have an inactivated copy of the gene that encodes SWS1. Here, we show that LWS is also inactivated in several cetacean lineages including the giant sperm whale, Sowerby's beaked whale, and balaenopteroids (rorquals plus gray whale). These cetaceans dive to depths of at least 100 meters where the underwater light field is dominated by dim, blue light. The knockout of both cone pigments renders these taxa rod monochromats, a condition that is previously unknown among mammalian species. Rod opsin remains functional in these taxa and is blue-shifted to increase its sensitivity to the available blue light that occurs in deep water conditions. These results further elucidate the molecular blueprint of modern cetacean species.
PMCID: PMC3630094  PMID: 23637615
9.  The Influence of Topographic and Dynamic Cyclic Variables on the Distribution of Small Cetaceans in a Shallow Coastal System 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(1):e86331.
The influence of topographic and temporal variables on cetacean distribution at a fine-scale is still poorly understood. To study the spatial and temporal distribution of harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena and the poorly known Risso’s dolphin Grampus griseus we carried out land-based observations from Bardsey Island (Wales, UK) in summer (2001–2007). Using Kernel analysis and Generalized Additive Models it was shown that porpoises and Risso’s appeared to be linked to topographic and dynamic cyclic variables with both species using different core areas (dolphins to the West and porpoises to the East off Bardsey). Depth, slope and aspect and a low variation in current speed (for Risso’s) were important in explaining the patchy distributions for both species. The prime temporal conditions in these shallow coastal systems were related to the tidal cycle (Low Water Slack and the flood phase), lunar cycle (a few days following the neap tidal phase), diel cycle (afternoons) and seasonal cycle (peaking in August) but differed between species on a temporary but predictable basis. The measure of tidal stratification was shown to be important. Coastal waters generally show a stronger stratification particularly during neap tides upon which the phytoplankton biomass at the surface rises reaching its maximum about 2–3 days after neap tide. It appeared that porpoises occurred in those areas where stratification is maximised and Risso’s preferred more mixed waters. This fine-scale study provided a temporal insight into spatial distribution of two species that single studies conducted over broader scales (tens or hundreds of kilometers) do not achieve. Understanding which topographic and cyclic variables drive the patchy distribution of porpoises and Risso’s in a Headland/Island system may form the initial basis for identifying potentially critical habitats for these species.
PMCID: PMC3899228  PMID: 24466031
10.  The use of DNA barcoding to monitor the marine mammal biodiversity along the French Atlantic coast 
ZooKeys  2013;5-24.
In the last ten years, 14 species of cetaceans and five species of pinnipeds stranded along the Atlantic coast of Brittany in the North West of France. All species included, an average of 150 animals strand each year in this area. Based on reports from the stranding network operating along this coast, the most common stranding events comprise six cetacean species (Delphinus delphis, Tursiops truncatus, Stenella coeruleoalba, Globicephala melas, Grampus griseus, Phocoena phocoena)and one pinniped species (Halichoerus grypus). Rare stranding events include deep-diving or exotic species, such as arctic seals. In this study, our aim was to determine the potential contribution of DNA barcoding to the monitoring of marine mammal biodiversity as performed by the stranding network.
We sequenced more than 500 bp of the 5’ end of the mitochondrial COI gene of 89 animals of 15 different species (12 cetaceans, and three pinnipeds). Except for members of the Delphininae, all species were unambiguously discriminated on the basis of their COI sequences. We then applied DNA barcoding to identify some “undetermined” samples. With again the exception of the Delphininae, this was successful using the BOLD identification engine. For samples of the Delphininae, we sequenced a portion of the mitochondrial control region (MCR), and using a non-metric multidimentional scaling plot and posterior probability calculations we were able to determine putatively each species. We then showed, in the case of the harbour porpoise, that COI polymorphisms, although being lower than MCR ones, could also be used to assess intraspecific variability. All these results show that the use of DNA barcoding in conjunction with a stranding network could clearly increase the accuracy of the monitoring of marine mammal biodiversity.
PMCID: PMC3890668  PMID: 24453548
DNA barcoding; COI; control region; marine mammals; cetaceans; pinnipeds; biodiversity monitoring; stranding network
11.  Harbour porpoises respond to climate change 
Ecology and Evolution  2011;1(4):579-585.
The effects of climate change on marine ecosystems and in particular on marine top predators are difficult to assess due to, among other things, spatial variability, and lack of clear delineation of marine habitats. The banks of West Greenland are located in a climate sensitive area and are likely to elicit pronounced responses to oceanographic changes in the North Atlantic. The recent increase in sea temperatures on the banks of West Greenland has had cascading effects on sea ice coverage, residency of top predators, and abundance of important prey species like Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua). Here, we report on the response of one of the top predators in West Greenland; the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena). The porpoises depend on locating high densities of prey species with high nutritive value and they have apparently responded to the general warming on the banks of West Greenland by longer residence times, increased consumption of Atlantic cod resulting in improved body condition in the form of larger fat deposits in blubber, compared to the situation during a cold period in the 1990s. This is one of the few examples of a measurable effect of climate change on a marine mammal population.
PMCID: PMC3287339  PMID: 22393524
Climate change; harbour porpoise; west greenland; body condition; Atlantic cod
12.  Habitat structure and the dispersal of male and female bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) 
Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) are widely distributed and a high degree of morphometric and genetic differentiation has been found among both allopatric and parapatric populations. We analysed 145 samples along a contiguous distributional range from the Black Sea to the eastern North Atlantic for mitochondrial and nuclear genetic diversity, and found population structure with boundaries that coincided with transitions between habitat regions. These regions can be characterized by ocean floor topography, and oceanographic features such as surface salinity, productivity and temperature. At the extremes of this range there was evidence for the directional emigration of females. Bi-parentally inherited markers did not show this directional bias in migration, suggesting a different dispersal strategy for males and females at range margins. However, comparative assessment based on mitochondrial DNA and nuclear markers indicated that neither sex showed a strong bias for greater dispersal on average. These data imply a mechanism for the evolutionary structuring of populations based on local habitat dependence for both males and females.
PMCID: PMC1564106  PMID: 16024385
bottlenose dolphin; population genetics; Mediterranean Sea; Black Sea; sex-biased dispersal
13.  Genetic Structure Among 50 Species of the Northeastern Pacific Rocky Intertidal Community 
PLoS ONE  2010;5(1):e8594.
Comparing many species' population genetic patterns across the same seascape can identify species with different levels of structure, and suggest hypotheses about the processes that cause such variation for species in the same ecosystem. This comparative approach helps focus on geographic barriers and selective or demographic processes that define genetic connectivity on an ecosystem scale, the understanding of which is particularly important for large-scale management efforts. Moreover, a multispecies dataset has great statistical advantages over single-species studies, lending explanatory power in an effort to uncover the mechanisms driving population structure. Here, we analyze a 50-species dataset of Pacific nearshore invertebrates with the aim of discovering the most influential structuring factors along the Pacific coast of North America. We collected cytochrome c oxidase I (COI) mtDNA data from populations of 34 species of marine invertebrates sampled coarsely at four coastal locations in California, Oregon, and Alaska, and added published data from 16 additional species. All nine species with non-pelagic development have strong genetic structure. For the 41 species with pelagic development, 13 show significant genetic differentiation, nine of which show striking FST levels of 0.1–0.6. Finer scale geographic investigations show unexpected regional patterns of genetic change near Cape Mendocino in northern California for five of the six species tested. The region between Oregon and Alaska is a second focus of intraspecific genetic change, showing differentiation in half the species tested. Across regions, strong genetic subdivision occurs more often than expected in mid-to-high intertidal species, a result that may reflect reduced gene flow due to natural selection along coastal environmental gradients. Finally, the results highlight the importance of making primary research accessible to policymakers, as unexpected barriers to marine dispersal break the coast into separate demographic zones that may require their own management plans.
PMCID: PMC2799524  PMID: 20062807
14.  Evaluation of immune and stress status in harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena): can hormones and mRNA expression levels serve as indicators to assess stress? 
The harbour porpoise is exposed to increasing pressure caused by anthropogenic activities in its marine environment. Numerous offshore wind farms are planned or under construction in the North and Baltic Seas, which will increase underwater noise during both construction and operation. A better understanding of how anthropogenic impacts affect the behaviour, health, endocrinology, immunology and physiology of the animals is thus needed. The present study compares levels of stress hormones and mRNA expression of cytokines and acute-phase proteins in blood samples of harbour porpoises exposed to different levels of stress during handling, in rehabilitation or permanent human care.
Free-ranging harbour porpoises, incidentally caught in pound nets in Denmark, were compared to harbour porpoises in rehabilitation at SOS Dolfijn in Harderwijk, the Netherlands, and individuals permanently kept in human care in the Dolfinarium Harderwijk and Fjord & Belt Kerteminde, Denmark. Blood samples were investigated for catecholamines, adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine, as well as for adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), cortisol, metanephrine and normetanephrine. mRNA expression levels of relevant cell mediators (cytokines IL-10 and TNFα, acute-phase proteins haptoglobin and C-reactive protein and the heat shock protein HSP70) were measured using real-time PCR.
Biomarker expression levels varied between free-ranging animals and porpoises in human care. Hormone and cytokine ranges showed correlations to each other and to the health status of investigated harbour porpoises. Hormone concentrations were higher in free-ranging harbour porpoises than in animals in human care. Adrenaline can be used as a parameter for the initial reaction to acute stress situations; noradrenaline, dopamine, ACTH and cortisol are more likely indicators for the following minutes of acute stress. There is evidence for different correlations between production of normetanephrine, metanephrine, cortisol and the expression of IL-10, HSP70 and haptoglobin.
The expression patterns of the selected molecular biomarkers of the immune system are promising to reflect the health and immune status of the harbour porpoise under different levels of stress.
PMCID: PMC3734172  PMID: 23866055
Harbour porpoise; Stress hormones; Cytokines; Anthropogenic impact; Offshore wind farms; Underwater noise
15.  Gene flow on ice: the role of sea ice and whaling in shaping Holarctic genetic diversity and population differentiation in bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) 
Ecology and Evolution  2012;2(11):2895-2911.
Sea ice is believed to be a major factor shaping gene flow for polar marine organisms, but it remains unclear to what extent it represents a true barrier to dispersal for arctic cetaceans. Bowhead whales are highly adapted to polar sea ice and were targeted by commercial whalers throughout Arctic and subarctic seas for at least four centuries, resulting in severe reductions in most areas. Both changing ice conditions and reductions due to whaling may have affected geographic distribution and genetic diversity throughout their range, but little is known about range-wide genetic structure or whether it differed in the past. This study represents the first examination of genetic diversity and differentiation across all five putative stocks, including Baffin Bay-Davis Strait, Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin, Bering-Beaufort-Chukchi, Okhotsk, and Spitsbergen. We also utilized ancient specimens from Prince Regent Inlet (PRI) in the Canadian Arctic and compared them with modern stocks. Results from analysis of molecular variance and demographic simulations are consistent with recent and high gene flow between Atlantic and Pacific stocks in the recent past. Significant genetic differences between ancient and modern populations suggest PRI harbored unique maternal lineages in the past that have been recently lost, possibly due to loss of habitat during the Little Ice Age and/or whaling. Unexpectedly, samples from this location show a closer genetic relationship with modern Pacific stocks than Atlantic, supporting high gene flow between the central Canadian Arctic and Beaufort Sea over the past millennium despite extremely heavy ice cover over much of this period.
PMCID: PMC3501639  PMID: 23170222
Ancient DNA; arctic; cetacean; marine mammal; mitochondrial DNA; whaling
16.  Clicking in a Killer Whale Habitat: Narrow-Band, High-Frequency Biosonar Clicks of Harbour Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) and Dall’s Porpoise (Phocoenoides dalli) 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(5):e63763.
Odontocetes produce a range of different echolocation clicks but four groups in different families have converged on producing the same stereotyped narrow band high frequency (NBHF) click. In microchiropteran bats, sympatric species have evolved the use of different acoustic niches and subtly different echolocation signals to avoid competition among species. In this study, we examined whether similar adaptations are at play among sympatric porpoise species that use NBHF echolocation clicks. We used a six-element hydrophone array to record harbour and Dall’s porpoises in British Columbia (BC), Canada, and harbour porpoises in Denmark. The click source properties of all porpoise groups were remarkably similar and had an average directivity index of 25 dB. Yet there was a small, but consistent and significant 4 kHz difference in centroid frequency between sympatric Dall’s (137±3 kHz) and Canadian harbour porpoises (141±2 kHz). Danish harbour porpoise clicks (136±3 kHz) were more similar to Dall’s porpoise than to their conspecifics in Canada. We suggest that the spectral differences in echolocation clicks between the sympatric porpoises are consistent with evolution of a prezygotic isolating barrier (i.e., character displacement) to avoid hybridization of sympatric species. In practical terms, these spectral differences have immediate application to passive acoustic monitoring.
PMCID: PMC3665716  PMID: 23723996
17.  Phylogeography and historical demography of the Pacific Sierra mackerel (Scomberomorus sierra) in the Eastern Pacific 
BMC Genetics  2010;11:34.
Testing connectivity among populations of exploited marine fish is a main concern for the development of conservation strategies. Even though marine species are often considered to display low levels of population structure, barriers to dispersal found in the marine realm may restrict gene flow and cause genetic divergence of populations. The Pacific Sierra mackerel (Scomberomorus sierra) is a pelagic fish species distributed throughout the tropical and subtropical waters of the eastern Pacific. Seasonal spawning in different areas across the species range, as well as a limited dispersal, may result in a population genetic structure. Identification of genetically discrete units is important in the proper conservation of the fishery.
Samples collected from the Eastern Pacific, including the areas of main abundance of the species, presented high levels of mtDNA genetic diversity and a highly significant divergence. At least two genetically discrete groups were detected in the northern (Sinaloa) and central areas (Oaxaca and Chiapas) of the species range, exhibiting slight genetic differences with respect to the samples collected in the southern region (Peru), together with a "chaotic genetic patchiness" pattern of differentiation and no evidence of isolation by distance. Historical demographic parameters supported the occurrence of past population expansions, whereas the divergence times between populations coincided with the occurrence of glacial maxima some 220 000 years ago.
The population genetic structure detected for the Pacific Sierra mackerel is associated with a limited dispersal between the main abundance areas that are usually linked to the spawning sites of the species. Population expansions have coincided with glacial-interglacial episodes in the Pleistocene, but they may also be related to the increase in the SST and with upwelling areas in the EEP since the early Pleistocene.
PMCID: PMC2876057  PMID: 20438637
18.  De Novo Assembly and Characterization of Narrow-Ridged Finless Porpoise Renal Transcriptome and Identification of Candidate Genes Involved in Osmoregulation 
During the evolutionary transition from land to water, cetaceans have undergone numerous critical challenges, with osmoregulation being the major one. Two subspecies of the narrow-ridged finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis), the freshwater Yangtze finless porpoise (N. a. asiaeorientalis, NAA) and the marine East Asian finless porpoise (N. a. sunameri, NAS), provide excellent subjects to understand the genetic basis of osmoregulatory divergence between freshwater and marine mammals. The kidney plays an important and well-established role in osmoregulation in marine mammals and thus, herein, we utilized RNA-seq to characterize the renal transcriptome and preliminarily analyze the divergence between the NAA and the NAS. Approximately 48.98 million clean reads from NAS and 49.40 million clean reads from NAA were obtained by RNA-Seq. And 73,449 (NAS) and 68,073 (NAA) unigenes were assembled. Among these annotations, 22,231 (NAS) and 21,849 (NAA) unigenes were annotated against the NCBI nr protein database. The ion channel complex GO term and four pathways were detected as relevant to osmoregulation by GO and KEGG pathway classification of these annotated unigenes. Although the endangered status of the study species prevented analysis of biological replicates, we identified nine differentially expressed genes (DEGs) that may be vital in the osmoregulation of the narrow-ridged finless porpoise and worthwhile for future studies. Of these DEGs, the differential expression and distribution of the aquaporin-2 (AQP2) in the collecting duct were verified using immunohistochemical experiments. Together, this work is the first report of renal transcriptome sequencing in cetaceans, and it will provide a valuable resource for future molecular genetics studies on cetacean osmoregulation.
PMCID: PMC4307359  PMID: 25608655
renal transcriptome; RNA-seq; the narrow-ridged finless porpoise; osmoregulation; AQP2
19.  MLVA-16 typing of 295 marine mammal Brucella isolates from different animal and geographic origins identifies 7 major groups within Brucella ceti and Brucella pinnipedialis 
BMC Microbiology  2009;9:145.
Since 1994, Brucella strains have been isolated from a wide range of marine mammals. They are currently recognized as two new Brucella species, B. pinnipedialis for the pinniped isolates and B. ceti for the cetacean isolates in agreement with host preference and specific phenotypic and molecular markers. In order to investigate the genetic relationships within the marine mammal Brucella isolates and with reference to terrestrial mammal Brucella isolates, we applied in this study the Multiple Loci VNTR (Variable Number of Tandem Repeats) Analysis (MLVA) approach. A previously published assay comprising 16 loci (MLVA-16) that has been shown to be highly relevant and efficient for typing and clustering Brucella strains from animal and human origin was used.
294 marine mammal Brucella strains collected in European waters from 173 animals and a human isolate from New Zealand presumably from marine origin were investigated by MLVA-16. Marine mammal Brucella isolates were shown to be different from the recognized terrestrial mammal Brucella species and biovars and corresponded to 3 major related groups, one specific of the B. ceti strains, one of the B. pinnipedialis strains and the last composed of the human isolate. In the B. ceti group, 3 subclusters were identified, distinguishing a cluster of dolphin, minke whale and porpoise isolates and two clusters mostly composed of dolphin isolates. These results were in accordance with published analyses using other phenotypic or molecular approaches, or different panels of VNTR loci. The B. pinnipedialis group could be similarly subdivided in 3 subclusters, one composed exclusively of isolates from hooded seals (Cystophora cristata) and the two others comprising other seal species isolates.
The clustering analysis of a large collection of marine mammal Brucella isolates from European waters significantly strengthens the current view of the population structure of these two species, and their relative position with respect to the rest of the Brucella genus. MLVA-16 is confirmed as being a rapid, highly discriminatory and reproducible method to classify Brucella strains including the marine mammal isolates. The Brucella2009 MLVA-16 genotyping database available at is providing a detailed coverage of all 9 currently recognized Brucella species.
PMCID: PMC2719651  PMID: 19619320
20.  Molecular ecology meets remote sensing: environmental drivers to population structure of humpback dolphins in the Western Indian Ocean 
Heredity  2011;107(4):349-361.
Genetic analyses of population structure can be placed in explicit environmental contexts if appropriate environmental data are available. Here, we use high-coverage and high-resolution oceanographic and genetic sequence data to assess population structure patterns and their potential environmental influences for humpback dolphins in the Western Indian Ocean. We analyzed mitochondrial DNA data from 94 dolphins from the coasts of South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania and Oman, employing frequency-based and maximum-likelihood algorithms to assess population structure and migration patterns. The genetic data were combined with 13 years of remote sensing oceanographic data of variables known to influence cetacean dispersal and population structure. Our analyses show strong and highly significant genetic structure between all putative populations, except for those in South Africa and Mozambique. Interestingly, the oceanographic data display marked environmental heterogeneity between all sampling areas and a degree of overlap between South Africa and Mozambique. Our combined analyses therefore suggest the occurrence of genetically isolated populations of humpback dolphins in areas that are environmentally distinct. This study highlights the utility of molecular tools in combination with high-resolution and high-coverage environmental data to address questions not only pertaining to genetic population structure, but also to relevant ecological processes in marine species.
PMCID: PMC3182502  PMID: 21427750
population structure; remote sensing; environmental drivers
21.  Adaptive evolution and functional constraint at TLR4 during the secondary aquatic adaptation and diversification of cetaceans 
Cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) are a group of adapted marine mammals with an enigmatic history of transition from terrestrial to full aquatic habitat and rapid radiation in waters around the world. Throughout this evolution, the pathogen stress-response proteins must have faced challenges from the dramatic change of environmental pathogens in the completely different ecological niches cetaceans occupied. For this reason, cetaceans could be one of the most ideal candidate taxa for studying evolutionary process and associated driving mechanism of vertebrate innate immune systems such as Toll-like receptors (TLRs), which are located at the direct interface between the host and the microbial environment, act at the first line in recognizing specific conserved components of microorganisms, and translate them rapidly into a defense reaction.
We used TLR4 as an example to test whether this traditionally regarded pattern recognition receptor molecule was driven by positive selection across cetacean evolutionary history. Overall, the lineage-specific selection test showed that the dN/dS (ω) values along most (30 out of 33) examined cetartiodactylan lineages were less than 1, suggesting a common effect of functional constraint. However, some specific codons made radical changes, fell adjacent to the residues interacting with lipopolysaccharides (LPS), and showed parallel evolution between independent lineages, suggesting that TLR4 was under positive selection. Especially, strong signatures of adaptive evolution on TLR4 were identified in two periods, one corresponding to the early evolutionary transition of the terrestrial ancestors of cetaceans from land to semi-aquatic (represented by the branch leading to whale + hippo) and from semi-aquatic to full aquatic (represented by the ancestral branch leading to cetaceans) habitat, and the other to the rapid diversification and radiation of oceanic dolphins.
This is the first study thus far to characterize the TLR gene in cetaceans. Our data present evidences that cetacean TLR4 has undergone adaptive evolution against the background of purifying selection in response to the secondary aquatic adaptation and rapid diversification in the sea. It is suggested that microbial pathogens in different environments are important factors that promote adaptive changes at cetacean TLR4 and new functions of some amino acid sites specialized for recognizing pathogens in dramatically contrasted environments to enhance the fitness for the adaptation and survival of cetaceans.
PMCID: PMC3384459  PMID: 22443485
22.  Seascape Genetics of a Globally Distributed, Highly Mobile Marine Mammal: The Short-Beaked Common Dolphin (Genus Delphinus) 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(2):e31482.
Identifying which factors shape the distribution of intraspecific genetic diversity is central in evolutionary and conservation biology. In the marine realm, the absence of obvious barriers to dispersal can make this task more difficult. Nevertheless, recent studies have provided valuable insights into which factors may be shaping genetic structure in the world's oceans. These studies were, however, generally conducted on marine organisms with larval dispersal. Here, using a seascape genetics approach, we show that marine productivity and sea surface temperature are correlated with genetic structure in a highly mobile, widely distributed marine mammal species, the short-beaked common dolphin. Isolation by distance also appears to influence population divergence over larger geographical scales (i.e. across different ocean basins). We suggest that the relationship between environmental variables and population structure may be caused by prey behaviour, which is believed to determine common dolphins' movement patterns and preferred associations with certain oceanographic conditions. Our study highlights the role of oceanography in shaping genetic structure of a highly mobile and widely distributed top marine predator. Thus, seascape genetic studies can potentially track the biological effects of ongoing climate-change at oceanographic interfaces and also inform marine reserve design in relation to the distribution and genetic connectivity of charismatic and ecologically important megafauna.
PMCID: PMC3271111  PMID: 22319634
23.  Do Porpoises Choose Their Associates? A New Method for Analyzing Social Relationships among Cetaceans 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(12):e28836.
Observing and monitoring the underwater social interactions of cetaceans is challenging. Therefore, previous cetacean studies have monitored these interactions by surface observations. However, because cetaceans spend most of their time underwater, it is important that their underwater behavior is also continuously monitored to better understand their social relationships and social structure. The finless porpoise is small and has no dorsal fin. It is difficult to observe this species in the wild, and little is known of its sociality.
Methodology/Principal Findings
The swim depths of 6 free-ranging finless porpoises were simultaneously recorded using a time-synchronized bio-logging system. Synchronous diving was used as an index of association. Two pairs, #27 (an immature female estimated to be 3.5 years old) and #32 (an adult male), #28 (a juvenile male estimated to be 2 years old) and #29 (an adult male), tended to participate in long periods of synchronized diving more frequently than 13 other possible pairs, indicating that the 4 porpoises chose their social partners. The adult males (#32, #29) tended to follow the immature female (#27) and juvenile male (#28), respectively. However, during synchronized diving, the role of an initiator often changed within the pair, and their body movements appeared to be non-agonistic, e.g., rubbing of bodies against one another instead of that on one-side, as observed with chasing and escaping behaviors.
The present study employed a time-synchronized bio-logging method to observe the social relationships of free-ranging aquatic animals based on swimming depth. The results suggest that certain individuals form associations even if they are not a mother and calf pair. Long synchronized dives occurred when particular members were reunited, and this suggests that the synchronized dives were not a by-product of opportunistic aggregation.
PMCID: PMC3244420  PMID: 22216123
24.  Evidence for panmixia despite barriers to gene flow in the southern African endemic, Caffrogobius caffer (Teleostei: Gobiidae) 
Oceanography and life-history characteristics are known to influence the genetic structure of marine species, however the relative role that these factors play in shaping phylogeographic patterns remains unresolved. The population genetic structure of the endemic, rocky shore dwelling Caffrogobius caffer was investigated across a known major oceanographic barrier, Cape Agulhas, which has previously been shown to strongly influence genetic structuring of South African rocky shore and intertidal marine organisms. Given the variable and dynamic oceanographical features of the region, we further sought to test how the pattern of gene flow between C. caffer populations is affected by the dominant Agulhas and Benguela current systems of the southern oceans.
The variable 5' region of the mtDNA control region was amplified for 242 individuals from ten localities spanning the distributional range of C. caffer. Fifty-five haplotypes were recovered and in stark contrast to previous phylogeographic studies of South African marine species, C. caffer showed no significant population genetic structuring along 1300 km of coastline. The parsimony haplotype network, AMOVA and SAMOVA analyses revealed panmixia. Coalescent analyses reveal that gene flow in C. caffer is strongly asymmetrical and predominantly affected by the Agulhas Current. Notably, there was no gene flow between the east coast and all other populations, although all other analyses detect no significant population structure, suggesting a recent divergence. The mismatch distribution suggests that C. caffer underwent a population expansion at least 14 500 years ago.
We propose several possible life-history adaptations that could have enabled C. caffer to maintain gene flow across its distributional range, including a long pelagic larval stage. We have shown that life-history characteristics can be an important contributing factor to the phylogeography of marine species and that the effects of oceanography do not necessarily suppress its influence on effective dispersal.
PMCID: PMC2613416  PMID: 19040766
25.  Short-term disturbance by a commercial two-dimensional seismic survey does not lead to long-term displacement of harbour porpoises 
Assessments of the impact of offshore energy developments are constrained because it is not known whether fine-scale behavioural responses to noise lead to broader-scale displacement of protected small cetaceans. We used passive acoustic monitoring and digital aerial surveys to study changes in the occurrence of harbour porpoises across a 2000 km2 study area during a commercial two-dimensional seismic survey in the North Sea. Acoustic and visual data provided evidence of group responses to airgun noise from the 470 cu inch array over ranges of 5–10 km, at received peak-to-peak sound pressure levels of 165–172 dB re 1 µPa and sound exposure levels (SELs) of 145–151 dB re 1 µPa2 s−1. However, animals were typically detected again at affected sites within a few hours, and the level of response declined through the 10 day survey. Overall, acoustic detections decreased significantly during the survey period in the impact area compared with a control area, but this effect was small in relation to natural variation. These results demonstrate that prolonged seismic survey noise did not lead to broader-scale displacement into suboptimal or higher-risk habitats, and suggest that impact assessments should focus on sublethal effects resulting from changes in foraging performance of animals within affected sites.
PMCID: PMC3790491  PMID: 24089338
Phocoena phocoena; oil and gas exploration; acoustic disturbance; marine mammal conservation; marine spatial planning

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