During the austral winter, adult female southern right whales Eubalaena australis enter the South African coastal waters to give birth and raise their young. Most births take place over a 4-month period, when the females congregate in specific coastal areas or nursery grounds for up to a recorded maximum of 105 days. At this time, the density of cow—calf pairs in nursery areas can reach as high as 3.2 pairs/km2 over 26 km of coastline. Although a single young is born and suckled exclusively for 7 months to a year, recent observations on nursery grounds include 3 incidents where apparently abandoned/orphaned calves-of-the-year have been seen associating with a minimum of 2–3 different cow—calf pairs over periods of 11–38 days. Attempts to suckle from these females have been noted in 2 of the cases, with the response of the female varying from extreme avoidance to apparent tolerance. In one instance where the observations of the same trio extended over 21 days, the non-offspring appeared to compete at least equally with the offspring, even though the mother directed her evasive tactics more at the non-offspring than her own calf. At the same time, both of the calves exhibited some growth in length when compared with the size of the adult female: their subsequent survival is unknown. Non-offspring nursing in monotocous species is generally rare, and the costs to the female potentially high: this is certainly the case for seasonally feeding mysticetes such as the right whale, where the costs of lactation cannot be recovered until the cow resumes feeding about 4 months after parturition. Hence, it is perhaps not surprising that these are the first recorded observations of contemporaneous nursing attempts by offspring and non-offspring calves of any mysticete.
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Vol. 96 • No. 2