Blubber thickness in right whales Eubalaena glacialis and Eubalaena australis related with reproduction, life history status and prey abundance
Miller, Carolyn A.
Best, Peter B.
Knowlton, Amy R.
Brown, Moira W.
Moore, Michael J.
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KeywordRight whale; Eubalaena; Blubber thickness; Body condition; Reproduction; Physiology; Energy reserves
The high variability in reproductive performance of North Atlantic right whales Eubalaena glacialis compared to southern right whales Eubalaena australis may reflect differences in lipid reserves. Amplitude-mode ultrasound was used to measure the thickness of right whale integument (epidermis and blubber, herein referred to as blubber thickness) in E. glacialis in the Bay of Fundy, Canada for 5 summer seasons and in E. australis off the South African coast for 2 austral winter seasons. E. glacialis had significantly thinner blubber layers (mean ±1 SD = 12.23 ± 2.16 cm, n = 172) than E. australis (16.13 ± 3.88 cm, n = 117), suggesting differing levels of nutrition between the 2 species. Blubber was thickest in females measured 3 to 6 mo prior to the start of pregnancy (E. glacialis), thinner during lactation (E. glacialis, E. australis) and then thicker with time after weaning (E. glacialis). These results suggest that lipids in blubber are used as energetic support for reproduction in female right whales. Blubber thickness increased in calves during suckling (E. glacialis, E. australis) but subsequently decreased after weaning (E. glacialis). Juvenile and adult male E. glacialis blubber thicknesses were compared between years of differing prey Calanus finmarchicus abundances (data from Pershing et al. 2005; ICES J Mar Sci 62:1511–1523); during a year of low prey abundance whales had significantly thinner blubber than during years of greater prey abundance. Taken together, these results suggest that blubber thickness is indicative of right whale energy balance and that the marked fluctuations in North Atlantic right whale reproduction have a nutritional component.
Author Posting. © Inter-Research, 2011. This article is posted here by permission of Inter-Research for personal use, not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in Marine Ecology Progress Series 438 (2011): 267-283, doi:10.3354/meps09174.
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