Lifetime glucocorticoid profiles in baleen of right whale calves: potential relationships to chronic stress of repeated wounding by Kelp Gulls.
Alejandro A. Fernandez Ajo, Kathleen E. Hunt, Marcela Uhart, Victoria Rowntree, Mariano Sironi, Carina F. Maron, Matias Di Martino and C. Loren Buck
International Whaling Commission
Baleen tissue accumulates stress hormones (glucocorticoids, GC) as it grows, along with other adrenal, gonadal and thyroid hormones. The hormones are deposited in a linear fashion such that a single plate of baleen allows retrospective assessment and evaluation of long-term trends in the whales' physiological condition. In whale calves, a single piece of baleen contains hormones deposited across the lifespan of the animal, with the tip of the baleen representing prenatally grown baleen. This suggests that baleen recovered from stranded carcasses of whale calves could be used to examine lifetime patterns of stress physiology. Here we report lifetime profiles of cortisol and corticosterone in baleen of a North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) calf that died from a vessel strike, as well as four southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) calves that were found dead with varying severity of chronic wounding from Kelp Gull (Larus dominicanus) attacks. In all five calves, prenatally grown baleen exhibited a distinctive profile of elevated glucocorticoids that declined shortly before birth, similar to GC profiles reported from baleen of pregnant females. After birth, GC profiles in calf baleen corresponded with the degree of wounding. The NARW calf and two SRW calves with no or few gull wounds had relatively low and constant GC content throughout life, while two SRW calves with high numbers of gull wounds had pronounced elevations in baleen GC content in postnatal baleen followed by a precipitous decline shortly before death, a profile suggestive of prolonged chronic stress. Baleen samples may present a promising and valuable tool for defining the baseline physiology of whale calves, and may prove useful for addressing conservation-relevant questions such as distinguishing acute from chronic stress and, potentially, determining cause of death.