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Genetic population structure among humpback whales is driven by female whales returning to the same feeding and breeding grounds each year, according to a new study.

Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the American Museum of Natural History, and elsewhere amassed a collection of mtDNA from more than 3,000 humpback whales from 14 sampling sites that included individuals from all known breeding stocks in the Southern Hemisphere and Arabian Sea. As they report in Endangered Species Research, researchers led by WCS's Howard Rosenbaum used that data to determine the genetic diversity of each breeding stock. They found that the low level of population structure among humpback whales is largely due to female whales returning to the same feeding and breeding grounds each year, with their calves in tow.

"Our findings give us insights into how fidelity to breeding and feeding destinations persist over many generations, resulting in differences between whale populations, and why some populations are more genetically differentiated from the rest, " Rosenbaum says in a statement. "From these efforts, we are in better positions to inform actions and policies that will help protect Southern Hemisphere humpback whales across their range, as well as in the Arabian Sea."

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