, Volume 151, Issue 1, pp 277-291
Date: 12 Oct 2006

Phylogenetic, ecological, and ontogenetic factors influencing the biochemical structure of the blubber of odontocetes

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Abstract

To explore ecological, phylogenetic, and developmental factors affecting the structure of blubber in Odontocetes (toothed whales), lipid composition of this specialized adipose tissue was determined in 260 specimens (30 species representing all families except the river dolphins), most of which were collected between 1995 and 2005, from all over the world. In most odontocetes, blubber contained primarily triacylglycerols; the blubber of beaked and sperm whales was dominated by wax esters (WE), exhibiting ontogenetic patterns of deposition. WEs may represent an adaptation to deep diving for marine mammals that do not rely on blubber for stored energy. Fatty acid (FA) composition was stratified through blubber depth, with higher concentrations of dietary FA in the inner and endogenous FA in the outer layers of the blubber. Stratification can be considered a characteristic feature of odontocetes, and is likely the result of differential metabolism through the blubber. Small body size appears to constrain blubber lipid content to be high. Thermal habitat also represents an important selective pressure for blubber composition. Species inhabiting colder waters exhibited both higher lipid content and increased FA stratification in blubber, compared to species from warm/tropical habitats. The isolation of mobilization to inner blubber may permit metabolic enzymes to function without limitation by lower temperatures. The variation in composition and distribution of blubber lipids in odontocetes suggests that different species may have evolved slightly diverse arrays of secondary functions for this specialized tissue as adaptations for specific ecological niches.

Communicated by J. P. Grassle, New Brunswick.