What ties unite the fin whales of the North Atlantic?

Fin whales are present year round throughout the Atlantic. The cosmopolitan nature of fin whales intrigues biologists. Are there bonds between the fin whales observed in different areas of the Atlantic?


  • Group of whales
  • Photo credit: © GREMM

To go through the looking glass

Between 1982 and 1994 skin samples were taken from fin whales on five different feeding grounds across the North Atlantic: the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Gulf of Maine, the East Coast of Greenland, Iceland and the West Coast of Spain, as well as in the Mediterranean. The genetic analysis of DNA extracted from these samples will allow researchers to study population structures by estimating the level of exchange or isolation for different groups.

In short…

This study highlighted genetic differences between fin whales of the Western North Atlantic and the Eastern North Atlantic and the Mediterranean. However, it has not been able to pinpoint to which group belong animals that were sampled west of Greenland and along the coasts of Iceland. These results support the hypothesis put forward at the turn of the century by biologists who were studying animals taken by hunters. They proposed that North Atlantic fin whales were divided into several sub-populations that undertook short migrations between their feeding grounds and wintering grounds. These migrations would favour exchanges between neighbouring sub-populations.

Project collaborators

M. Bérubé1, A. Aguilar2, D. Dendanto3, F. Larsen4, G. Notarbartolo di Sciara5, Richard Sears6, J. Sigurjónsson7, J. Urban-R.8, P. J. Palsbøll1, R. Michaud9 et J. Giard9

1. University of Wales 2. University of Barcelona 3. Allied Whale 4. Greenlandic Fisheries Research Institute 5. Tethys Research Institute 6. Mingan Island Cetacean Society (MICS) 7. Marine Research Institute, Iceland. 8. Universidad Autonoma de Baja California Sur 9. GREMM.


International Whaling Commission, Commission for Scientific Research (Groenland), Greenland Home Rule, Aage V. Jensens Charity Foundation, Danish Research Academy, Fondation Desjardins and McGill University.

Scientific papers

Bérubé, M. 1998. Genetic structure and molecular ecology of the North Atlantic fin whale, Balaenoptera physalus (Linnaeus, 1758). Thèse de doctorat. Department of Natural Resource Sciences, Macdonald Campus of McGill University. 184pp.

Bérubé, M., Aguilar, A., Dendanto, D., Larsen, F., Notarbartolo-di-Sciara, G., Sears, R., Sigurjónsson, J., Urban-Ramirez, J., et Palsbøll, P. J. 1998. Population genetic structure of North Atlantic, Mediterranean Sea and Sea of Cortez fin whales, Balaenoptera physalus (Linnaeus, 1758); analysis of mitochondrial and nuclear loci. Molecular Ecology, 7 (5):585-599.

Notarbartolo di Sciara, G., Bérubé, M., Zanardelli, M., et Panigada, S. 1996. The role of the Mediterranean in the fin whale ecology: insight through genetics. European Research on Cetaceans, 9: 218.