U.S. Department of Commerce


Date of this Version



Published in MARINE MAMMAL SCIENCE, 19(4):694-707 (October 2003).


We describe a novel behavior, termed “tail-up,” observed in humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) on wintering grounds on Abrolhos Bank, Brazil. The behavior involves the whale positioned vertically in the water column with its tail in the air. Wirh the exception of calves, tail-up was observed in all social classes, and its frequency increased through the end of the season. Tail-ups were recorded in 144 (5.8%) of 2,465 groups of whales observed from a shore station, and in 297 (14.9%) of 1,996 groups observed from vessel surveys; biases in each method suggest that the true frequency lies between these sources. One hundred and fifty-two hours of continuous sampling showed that the duration of tail-up events lasted from a few seconds to 12 min and was longest in groups comprised of a single adult. The maximum duration of a recorded period that consistently included tail-up was 10 h; however, some individuals were observed to engage in the behavior at night and for four consecutive days. Tail-up movement speed did not vary by social class; however, it varied according to wind direction and speed. The characteristics of tail-up that we observed showed that it differed from the descriptions of similar behaviors in other cetacean species. The function of tail-up is unknown, but we suggest that it may be a multifunctional behavior.