Advances in Marine Biology (2016)

DOI: 10.1016/bs.amb.2016.08.006


The harbour porpoise, Phocoena phocoena, is one of the best studied cetacean species owing to its common distribution along the coastal waters of the Northern Hemisphere. In European waters, strandings are common and bycatch mortalities in commercial fisheries reach alarming numbers. Lethal interactions resulting from human activities together with ongoing environmental changes raise serious concerns about population viability throughout the species’ range. These concerns foster the need to fill critical gaps in knowledge of harbour porpoise biology, including population structure, feeding ecology, habitat preference and evolutionary history, that are critical information for planning effective management and conservation efforts. While the species is distributed fairly continuously in the North Atlantic Ocean, it becomes fragmented in the south-eastern part with isolated populations occurring along the Atlantic coasts of the Iberian Peninsula, Northwest Africa and the Black Sea. The latter population is separated from Atlantic populations by the Mediterranean Sea, where the species is almost entirely absent. Understanding the evolutionary history of these populations occurring in marginal habitats holds the potential to reveal fundamental aspects of the species’ biology such as the factors determining its distribution, ecological niche, and how past and recent environmental variation have shaped the current population structure. This information can be critical for understanding the future evolution of the species in consideration of ongoing environmental changes. This chapter summarizes the recent advances in our knowledge regarding the populations bordering the Mediterranean Sea with a special emphasis on their ecological and evolutionary history, which has recently been reconstructed from genetic analyses.