The role of environmental limitation and density-dependent regulation in shaping populations is debated in ecology. Populations at low densities may offer an unobstructed view of basic environmental and physiological interactions that impact individual fitness and thus population productivity. The energy reserves of an organism are reflected in its body condition, a measure linking individual fitness and the environment. From 1997 to 2007, we monitored the critically endangered western gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) population on its primary summer feeding ground off the northeastern coast of Sakhalin Island, Russia. This effort resulted in a large data set of photo-identification images from 5,007 sightings of 168 individual whales that we used to visually assess western gray whale body condition. We quantified temporal variation in the resulting 1,539 monthly body condition determinations with respect to observations of reproductive status and sex. Western gray whale body condition varied annually, and we identified years of significantly better (2004) and worse (1999, 2006, and 2007) body condition. This study is the 1st to track the within-season body condition of individual whales. Body condition improved significantly as the summer progressed, although results suggest that not all whales replenish their energy stores by the end of the season. The body condition of lactating females was significantly worse than that of other whales at all times and was most often determined to be compromised. The body condition of their weaning calves exhibited no temporal variation and was consistently good. It is possible lactating females provide an energetic buffer to their offspring at the expense of their own body condition and future reproductive success. Findings from the analysis establish a foundation for quantifying links between western gray whale body condition, demographic parameters, and environmental conditions; and provide a baseline for monitoring individual and population condition of an ecosystem sentinel species in a changing environment. Overall, this study highlights the presence of density-independent environmental and physiological mechanisms that affect the abundance and growth of populations.
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Vol. 93 • No. 1