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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 438:267-283 (2011)  -  DOI:

Blubber thickness in right whales Eubalaena glacialis and Eubalaena australis related with reproduction, life history status and prey abundance

Carolyn A. Miller1,*, Desray Reeb2, Peter B. Best2, Amy R. Knowlton3, Moira W. Brown3, Michael J. Moore1

1Department of Biology, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachusetts 02543, USA
2Mammal Research Institute, University of Pretoria, c/o Iziko South African Museum, PO Box 61, Cape Town, South Africa
3New England Aquarium, Central Wharf, Boston, Massachusetts 02110, USA

ABSTRACT: 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.

KEY WORDS: Right whale · Eubalaena · Blubber thickness · Body condition · Reproduction · ­Physiology · Energy reserves

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Cite this article as: Miller CA, Reeb D, Best PB, Knowlton AR, Brown MW, Moore MJ (2011) Blubber thickness in right whales Eubalaena glacialis and Eubalaena australis related with reproduction, life history status and prey abundance. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 438:267-283.

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