MEPS 298:287-294 (2005)  -  doi:10.3354/meps298287

Transfer of fatty acids from mothers to their calves during lactation in white whalesDelphinapterus leucas

Annette Birkeland1,3, Kit M. Kovacs2, Christian Lydersen2, Otto Grahl-Nielsen1,*

1Department of Chemistry, University of Bergen, 5007 Bergen, Norway
2Norwegian Polar Institute, 9296 Tromsø, Norway
3Present address: Hydro Oleochemical, 3202 Sandefjord, Norway
*Corresponding author. Email:

ABSTRACT: Blubber biopsies, through the entire blubber layer, were collected from the members of 4 mother–calf pairs of white whales Delphinapterus leucas from Storfjorden, Svalbard, Norway. In addition, milk samples were collected from all 4 adult females. The calves ranged in age/size from newborn (with the umbilical cord still attached; 140 cm in length) up to a 1 yr old (body length of 255 cm). Since white whale calves consume only milk during their first year of life, free-living mother–calf pairs provide an interesting opportunity to study the deposition of lipids (calf blubber) when the diet (i.e. milk) is known precisely. The blubber of the newborn calves had fatty-acid (FA) compositions that differed significantly from the FA compositions of both the milk and the blubber of their respective mothers. The FA composition of the blubber of calves changed gradually with age, coming to resemble the FA composition of the blubber of their mothers more closely, rather than shifting towards the FA composition of the milk, i.e. their diet. The largest calf in the study had a blubber FA composition similar to that of the adult whales. Analyses also showed that the FA composition of the milk was significantly different from the FA composition of the maternal blubber.

KEY WORDS: White whales · Fatty-acid composition · Lactation · Blubber · Milk

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