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Larger body size leads to greater female beluga fitness at the southern periphery of their range
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  • Steven Ferguson,
  • David Yurkowski,
  • Justine Hudson,
  • Tera Edkins,
  • Cornelia Willing,
  • Cortney Watt
Steven Ferguson
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
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David Yurkowski
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
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Justine Hudson
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
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Tera Edkins
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
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Cornelia Willing
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
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Cortney Watt
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
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Abstract

Identifying phenotypic characteristics of evolutionarily fit individuals provides important insight into the evolutionary processes that cause range shifts with climate warming. Female beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) from the Canadian high Arctic (BB) residing in the core region of the species’ geographic range are 14% larger than their conspecifics at the southern periphery in Hudson Bay (HB). We investigated the causal mechanism for this north (core)-south (periphery) difference as it relates to fitness by combining morphometric data with ovarian corpora counted in female reproductive tracts. We found evidence for reproductive senescence in older HB females from the southern peripheral population but not for BB whales. Female beluga whale fitness in the more-northern BB increased faster with age (48% partial variation explained) versus a more gradual slope (25%) in HB. In contrast, body length in HB female beluga accounted for five times more of the total variation in fitness compared to BB whales. We speculate that female HB beluga fitness was more strongly linked with body length due to higher density, as larger body size provides survival advantages during seasonal food limitations. Understanding the evolutionary mechanism of how fitness changes will assist conservation efforts in anticipating and mitigating future challenges to peripheral populations.