Background: Commercial whaling caused extensive demographic declines in many great whale species, including gray whales that were extirpated from the Atlantic Ocean and dramatically reduced in the Pacific Ocean. The Eastern Pacific gray whale has recovered since the 1982 ban on commercial whaling, but the Western Pacific gray whale - once considered possibly extinct - consists of only about 200 individuals and is considered critically endangered by some international authorities. Herein, we use whole-genome sequencing to investigate the demographic history of gray whales from the Pacific and use environmental niche modelling to make predictions about future gene flow. Results: Our sequencing efforts and habitat niche modelling indicate that: i) western gray whale effective population sizes have declined since the last glacial maximum; ii) contemporary gray whale genomes, both eastern and western, harbor less autosomal nucleotide diversity than most other marine mammals and megafauna; iii) the extent of inbreeding, as measured by autozygosity, is greater in the Western Pacific than in the Eastern Pacific populations; and iv) future climate change is expected to open new migratory routes for gray whales. Conclusion: Our results indicate that gray whale genomes contain low nucleotide diversity and have been subject to both historical and recent inbreeding. Population sizes over the last million years likely peaked about 25,000 years before present and have declined since then. Our niche modelling suggests that novel migratory routes may develop within the next century and if so this could help retain overall genetic diversity, which is essential for adaption and successful recovery in light of global environmental change and past exploitation.
- Demographic history