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Alkenone Uk’37 index differs between thermally separated populations of fin whales and krill

Diego Rita*, Asuncion Borrell, Gísli Víkingsson, Alex Aguilar

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Although habitat temperature is an important determinant of a species distribution, its measurement is difficult in mobile marine organisms. Chemical tracers such as alkenones constitute an alternative tool for gauging marine habitat temperature, something particularly relevant in the current scenario of global warming. The unsaturation index of alkenones, the Uk’37 index, can be used to estimate sea surface temperature (SST) in living organisms. Here, we analyse alkenones concentrations in a predator species, the fin whale, and its prey, the northern krill, both sampled in two areas with different SST: south-western Iceland and northwestern Spain. In NW Spain (but not in W Iceland) alkenone concentrations were higher in krill than in fin whale blubber suggesting that they may biodilute along the trophic transfer. Consistently with local SST, the Uk’37 index was lower in the Icelandic samples of both fin whales and krill than in those from NW Spain, confirming the ability of this index to distinguish populations that are thermally separated. Whales are migratory animals; thus, the alkenones present in their blubber are a mix of those ingested locally and in recently visited regions. Consistently, the Uk’37 index showed a higher correlation with the local SST in krill than in fin whales. Alkenone turnover rate should be considered when using this proxy to assess the thermal range of the feeding habitat of a species. We conclude that the Uk’37 index is a potentially efficient tool to study the behaviour of whales, thus providing an alternative perspective to other chemical tracers.