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B310: Whale population structuring in the polar South Atlantic (Lead Supervisor: Jennifer Jackson, British Antarctic Survey)

Supervisors: Jennifer Jackson (British Antarctic Survey), Tamsin O'Connell (Archaeology), Ian Barnes (Natural History Museum), Gabriele Stowasser (British Antarctic Survey), Will Goodall-Copestake (British Antarctic Survey) and Phil Trathan (British Antarctic Survey)

Importance of the area of research:

Marine mammals were intensely exploited in the western South Atlantic over the last few centuries, with over 180,000 baleen whales killed in these waters since 1900. Hunting remains are still scattered over the sub-Antarctic islands where flensing and processing was carried out. Genetic and isotope surveys from material remains of marine mammals are a very useful resource for understanding past catch composition, feeding ecology and structuring of species. They can also provide an important historical baseline for measuring current recovery levels. The project will utilize collections of marine mammal bones from the South Orkney Islands and other sub-Antarctic islands, and develop genomic and isotopic tools for understanding the identity, foraging ecology and connectivity of marine mammals through this period of exploitation. Data will be used to quantify the impact of hunting on extant populations and improve our understanding of past and present connectivity between Southern Hemisphere marine mammal populations.

Project summary:

The project aims to measure genetic and foraging connectivity among whale populations in the polar South Atlantic during the early modern whaling period, and will quantify the impact of modern whaling on connectivity and diversity. This will be achieved using large numbers of whalebones collected from former whaling grounds in the South Atlantic (including the South Orkneys, South Georgia and the west Antarctic Peninsula). Whalebones will be subject to a combination of cutting edge genomic sequencing (providing a high resolution genetic ID of each individual), and isotopic analysis to distinguish lifetime foraging ranges.

What the student will do:

The student will conduct genetic and isotopic analysis of up to 500 bones collected by BAS and collaborators from former whaling stations in the polar Southwest Atlantic. DNA will be extracted from bones in the BAS historical DNA lab (part of the ANGEL lab) using extraction techniques optimized for degraded samples. DNA capture and genomic sequencing technologies will be applied to sequence mitochondrial genomes and ‘Single nucleotide polymorphisms’ (SNPs). SNPs will be used to distinguish individuals and identify replicate samples. These data will be used to measure whale diversity, abundance and inter-population connectivity with modern breeding grounds and other Southern Ocean localities. Isotope analyses of carbon and nitrogen will be carried out either at the Godwin Lab at the University of Cambridge or via NERC LSMSF.

Please contact the lead supervisor directly for further information relating to what the successful applicant will be expected to do, training to be provided, and any specific educational background requirements.


Foote, A. D., Hofreiter, M., & Morin, P. A. 2012. Ancient DNA from marine mammals: studying long-lived species over ecological and evolutionary timescales. Annals of Anatomy (Special Issue). Vol. 194. p.112-120.

Sremba, A., Martin, A., & Baker, C. S. 2014. Species identification and likely catch time period of whalebones from South Georgia. Marine Mammal Science, Vol. 31. p 122-133.

Valenzuela, L., et al. 2009. Isotopic and genetic evidence for culturally inherited site fidelity to feeding grounds in southern right whales. Molecular Ecology. Vol. 18. p 782-791.

Follow this link to find out about applying for this project



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