Late Pleistocene and Holocene occurrence of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) along the coasts of Norway

  • Øystein WiigEmail author
  • Lutz Bachmann
  • Anne Karin Hufthammer
Original Paper


The present study aims at an improved understanding of the origin and distribution of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) along the Norwegian coast during Late Pleistocene/Holocene. We used ancient DNA methodology to identify the species of 52 large whale bones found along the coast of the Norwegian mainland. Nucleotide sequence variation of the mitochondrial control region (CR) was determined and subsequently screened against GenBank for species identification. Thirty-one bones (60%) yielded informative nucleotide sequences for the targeted mitochondrial CR. Of these, 24 matched with bowhead whale. Two additional bones were identified to bowhead whale based on morphology. Thus, 26 of the bones were identified to be from bowhead whales. The ages of the bowhead bones ranged from 15,084 cal years BP to present, with most bones older than 10,000 cal years BP. We suggest that our results show a change in distribution of bowhead whales from the very southern Norwegian Sea in the Heinrich Stadial 1 (19,000–14,600 years BP) to a distribution reaching 64°N in the Bølling–Allerød Interstadial (14,600–12,900 years BP), while the species probably was absent along the Norwegian coast during the cold Younger Dryas (12,900–11,700 years BP). During the Holocene, the species most likely has had only a northern distribution. The present study does not contribute new knowledge to solve the question if North Atlantic bowhead whales originated from a refugium in the southeast Atlantic during the Last Glacial Maximum or originate from the Pacific.


Bowhead whale Balaena mysticetus Bones Distribution Norway Late Pleistocene Holocene aDNA 



We are thankful to the following persons and institutions for providing samples from their collections: Lisbeth Prøsch-Danielsen, Museum of Archaeology, University of Stavanger; The Whaling Museum in Sandefjord; Karl Frafjord, Tromsø University Museum; Åge Bjørstad; and Jeroen van der Kooij. We also acknowledge the help of Gro Bjørnstad and Thomas Borge for their extensive help in the aDNA laboratory, and to Anne-Barbi Nilsen for help with making the map.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Natural History MuseumUniversity of OsloOsloNorway
  2. 2.Department of Natural HistoryUniversity Museum, University of BergenBergenNorway

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