Estimating blue whale skin isotopic incorporation rates and baleen growth rates: Implications for assessing diet and movement patterns in mysticetes

Citation

Busquets-Vass G., S.D. Newsome, J. Calambokidis, G. Serra-Valente, J.K. Jacobsen, S. Aguı´ñiga-Garcı´a, and D. Gendron. 2017. Estimating blue whale skin isotopic incorporation rates and baleen growth rates: Implications for assessing diet and movement patterns in mysticetes. PLoS ONE 12 (5): e0177880. doi 10.1371/journal. pone.0177880

Abstract

Stable isotope analysis in mysticete skin and baleen plates has been repeatedly used to assess diet and movement patterns. Accurate interpretation of isotope data depends on understanding isotopic incorporation rates for metabolically active tissues and growth rates for metabolically inert tissues. The aim of this research was to estimate isotopic incorporation rates in blue whale skin and baleen growth rates by using natural gradients in baseline isotope values between oceanic regions. Nitrogen (δ15N) and carbon (δ13C) isotope values of blue whale skin and potential prey were analyzed from three foraging zones (Gulf of California, California Current System, and Costa Rica Dome) in the northeast Pacific from 1996–2015. We also measured δ15N and δ13C values along the lengths of baleen plates collected from six blue whales stranded in the 1980s and 2000s. Skin was separated into three strata: basale, externum, and sloughed skin. A mean (±SD) skin isotopic incorporation rate of 163±91 days was estimated by fitting a generalized additive model of the seasonal trend in δ15N values of skin strata collected in the Gulf of California and the California Current System. A mean (±SD) baleen growth rate of 15.5±2.2 cm y-1 was estimated by using seasonal oscillations in δ15N values from three whales. These oscillations also showed that individual whales have a high fidelity to distinct foraging zones in the northeast Pacific across years. The absence of oscillations in δ15N values of baleen sub-samples from three male whales suggests these individuals remained within a specific zone for several years prior to death. δ13C values of both whale tissues (skin and baleen) and potential prey were not distinct among foraging zones. Our results highlight the importance of considering tissue isotopic incorporation and growth rates when studying migratory mysticetes and provide new insights into the individual movement strategies of blue whales.

Download PDF