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The effect of migration and fasting on organochlorine contaminant burdens in southern hemisphere humpback whales

The effect of migration and fasting on organochlorine contaminant burdens in southern hemisphere humpback whales
Susan Bengtson Nash


Bengtson Nash S1, Waugh, C2 and Schlabach, M3

  1. Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia
  2. Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia
  3. The National Institute for Air Research, Kjeller, Norway


The dependence of polar species on lipid rich diets makes them susceptible to bioaccumulation of toxic and lipophilic persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Whilst Arctic biota has come under scientific scrutiny, there has been a comparative lack of POP research on Antarctic biota. Of notable significance are the few reports concerning Antarctic baleen whales.

Southern hemisphere humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) undertake the longest migrations and associated periods of fasting known in any mammal. No peer-reviewed reports currently exist on the levels of POPs in southern hemisphere populations, necessitating baseline data. Further, the extreme life history behavior of these populations provides a unique opportunity to study the toxicokinetics of POPs during a period of chronic energy deficit. Previously, medical research has evidenced the toxic effects associated with rapid weight loss and concomitant mobilization of POP burdens, therefore seasonal mobilization of blubber POP fractions during prolonged periods of lipid depletion, may place humpback whales in a higher chemical risk category to that commonly attributed baleen whales.

In this study we targeted male humpback whales migrating along the east coast of Australia (E1 breeding stock). Blubber biopsies were captured at two time points on the migration journey and blubber lipid and chemical analyses performed. We evidence the population blubber lipid loss and dramatic metabolic concentration of POPs that occurred over approximately four months of the annual migration. Further, lipophilic POPs are applied as novel tracers of lipid dynamics to estimate the average loss of body mass experienced by this population of humpback whales.

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This page was last modified on 2 September 2013.