Polar Biology

, Volume 40, Issue 11, pp 2225–2238 | Cite as

Reconstructing variability in West Greenland ocean biogeochemistry and bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) food web structure using amino acid isotope ratios

  • Corinne PomerleauEmail author
  • Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen
  • Steven H. Ferguson
  • Harry L. Stern
  • Jacob L. Høyer
  • Gary A. Stern
Original Paper


Climate change is causing physical and biological changes in the polar marine environment, which may impact higher trophic level predators such as the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) and the structure of their food webs. We used bulk stable isotope analysis and compound-specific isotope analysis (CSIA) of individual amino acids (AA) to examine bowhead whale trophic position and the biogeochemistry of one of their feeding grounds, Disko Bay, West Greenland, over a period of 7 years (2007–2013). We also examined whether environmental conditions such as sea ice concentration and sea surface temperature were causing any interannual variation in isotope data. Bulk δ 15N values were consistent across the 7 years of sampling and were similar between sex classes. Bulk δ 13C and essential-AAs δ 13C values displayed an overall temporal decline of 1.0 and 1.4‰, respectively. A significant positive linear relationship was found between δ 13C of bulk skin and essential-AAs suggesting that some of the observed isotopic variation in bowhead whales between years reflect changes in the carbon at the base of the food web. There were no correlations between the δ 13C and δ 15N values of isotopic tracers with sea ice concentrations or sea surface temperatures. The trophic level of bowhead whales remained stable over time despite large interannual variability in ice and temperature regimes. Our results indicate that the recent environmental changes in West Greenland resulted in no trophic perturbation being transferred to bowhead whales during that time period. Our study shows that the novel approach of CSIA-AA can be used effectively to study the combined temporal variation of bowhead whale food web structure and ecosystem isotopic baseline values and detect changes at the species and ecosystem levels.


Amino acids Bowhead whale Carbon Compound-specific isotope analysis Nitrogen Stable isotope analysis 



This study was funded by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources. We are grateful to local hunters in Qeqertarsuaq for collection of the skin biopsies. CITES permits have been provided by Greenlandic and Norwegian authorities. We thank Chris Yarnes and Joy Matthews from the University of California Davis and Anna Hussey and Aaron Fisk from the University of Windsor for sample analysis. Ecosystem data were provided by DiskoBasis/Arctic Station, University of Copenhagen. C. Pomerleau was supported by a W. Garfield Weston Postdoctoral fellowship. We would like to thank three anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Earth and Observation ScienceUniversity of ManitobaWinnipegCanada
  2. 2.Birds and MammalsGreenland Institute of Natural ResourcesNuukGreenland
  3. 3.Natural History Museum of DenmarkUniversity of CopenhagenCopenhagenDenmark
  4. 4.Freshwater Institute, Fisheries and Oceans CanadaWinnipegCanada
  5. 5.Applied Physics LaboratoryUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  6. 6.Danish Meteorological InstituteClimate and Arctic ResearchCopenhagenDenmark

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