Skip to main content

Stable isotopes in southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) baleen as indicators of seasonal movements, feeding and growth

Abstract

Ratios of stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes were examined in the baleen of 11 southern right whales originating from South Africa, including one neonate, six juveniles and four adults. Oscillations in carbon isotope ratios were marked, and indicated feeding north of or at the Subtropical Convergence (STC) alternating with feeding south of the STC. There was an inverse relationship in juveniles between the periodicity of the oscillations and the length of the baleen plate, indicating a reduction in baleen growth with age. The size of the periodicity predicted for the smallest juvenile plate was equivalent to the length of the baleen at 1 yr of age as estimated from the rate of baleen growth in calves, suggesting that the oscillations in carbon isotope ratios were annual events. On this assumption, the timing of the formation of the most recent carbon enrichment peak could be calculated for each individual, given the date of death and the rate of baleen growth in the preceding year; formation occurred over a period of 100 d from January to April (mean in February). A similar analysis indicated that valleys in the nitrogen isotope ratios were formed between January and June (mean in April), and enrichment peaks between August and May (mean in December). These patterns were not inconsistent with previous scenarios of southern right whale migration, if the enrichment peaks in carbon isotopes were taken to represent feeding just north of the STC, the subsequent decline in enrichment levels to represent feeding south of the STC in autumn, and the persistence of an isotopic signature characteristic of high latitude plankton throughout the winter and early spring to indicate that feeding essentially ceased when the northern migration began, and did not resume until the southern migration was under way. The oscillations in nitrogen isotope ratios would support this interpretation, if they were assumed to represent cycles of starvation and recovery. A comparison with baleen growth rates for bowhead whales allowed the ages of the six juveniles to be assessed. Their size at age, when compared to the lengths and growth rates of calves measured photogrammetrically, suggested that growth in body length of southern right whales slows markedly between weaning and 1 yr, and may be almost negligible from 1 to 4 yr of age.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  • Altabet M, Francois R (1994) Sedimentary nitrogen isotope ratios as a record for surface nitrate utilization. Global biogeochem Cycles 8: 103–116

    Google Scholar 

  • Best PB (1970) Exploitation and recovery of right whales Eubalaena australis off the Cape Province. Investl Rep Div Sea Fish, S Afr 80: 1–20

    Google Scholar 

  • Best PB (1981) The status of right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) off South Africa, 1969–1979. Invest Rep Sea Fish Inst, S Afr 123: 1–44

    Google Scholar 

  • Best PB (1990) Trends in the inshore right whale population off South Africa, 1969–1987. Mar Mammal Sci 6: 93–108

    Google Scholar 

  • Best PB (1994) Seasonality of reproduction and the length of gestation in southern right whales Eubalaena australis. J Zool, Lond 232: 175–189

    Google Scholar 

  • Best PB, Payne R, Rowntree V, Palazzo JT, Both MDC (1993) Long-range movements of South Atlantic right whales Eubalaena australis. Mar Mammal Sci 9: 227–234

    Google Scholar 

  • Best PB, Rüther H (1992) Aerial photogrammetry of southern right whales, Eubalaena australis. J Zool, Lond 228: 595–614

    Google Scholar 

  • Boutton TW, Tyrell HF, Patterson BW, Varga GA, Klein PD (1988) Carbon kinetics of milk formation in Holstein cows in late lactation. J Anim Sci 66: 2636–2645

    Google Scholar 

  • DeNiro MJ, Epstein S (1978) Influence of diet on the distribution of carbon isotopes in animals. Geochim cosmochim Acta 42: 495–506

    Google Scholar 

  • Dudley P (1726) An essay upon the natural history of whales, with a particular account of the ambergris found in the Sperma Ceti whale. In a letter to the Publisher, from the Honourable Paul Dudley, Esq.; F.R.S. Phil Trans R Soc 33 (387): 256–269

    Google Scholar 

  • Dunton KH, Saupe SM, Golikov AN, Schell DM, Schonberg SV (1989) Trophic relationships and isotopic gradients among western Arctic Ocean fauna. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 56: 89–97

    Google Scholar 

  • Francois R, Altabet MA, Goericke R, McCorkle DC, Brunet C, Poisson A (1993) Changes in the δ13 of surface water particulate organic matter across the Subtropical Convergence in the S.W. Indian Ocean. Global biogeochem Cycles 7: 627–644

    Google Scholar 

  • Fry B, Sherr EB (1984) δ13C measurements as indicators of carbon flow in marine and freshwater ecosystems. Contr mar Sci Univ Tex 27: 13–47

    Google Scholar 

  • Goericke R, Fry B (1994) Variations in marine plankton δ13C with latitude, temperature, and dissolved CO2 in the world ocean. Global biogeochem Cycles 8: 85–90

    Google Scholar 

  • Goericke R, Montoya JP, Fry B (1994) Physiology of isotope fractionation in algae and cyanobacteria. In: Lajtha K, Michener R (eds) Stable isotopes in ecology and environmental science. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford, pp 187–221

    Google Scholar 

  • Hamner WM, Stone GS, Obst BS (1988) Behavior of southern right whales, Eubalaena australis, feeding on the Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba. Fish Bull, US 86: 143–150

    Google Scholar 

  • Harmer SF (1928) History of whaling. Proc Linn Soc Lond 140: 51–95

    Google Scholar 

  • Hobson KA, Clark RG (1992) Assessing avian diets using stable isotopes. II. Factors influencing diet-tissue fractionation. Condor 94: 189–197

    Google Scholar 

  • Lajtha K, Michener RH (1994) Stable isotopes in ecology and environmental science. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Lönnberg E (1906) Contributions to the fauna of South Georgia. I. Taxonomic and biological notes on vertebrates. K svenska Vetensk Akad Handl 40 (5): 1–104

    Google Scholar 

  • Matthews LH (1932) Lobster krill. ‘Discovery’ Rep 5: 467–484

    Google Scholar 

  • Matthews LH (1938) Notes on the southern right whale, Eubalaena australis. ‘Discovery’ Rep 17: 169–182

    Google Scholar 

  • Michener RH, Schell DM (1994) Stable isotope ratios as tracers in marine aquatic food webs. In: Lajtha K, Michener R (eds) Stable isotopes in ecology and environmental science. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford, pp 138–157

    Google Scholar 

  • Minagawa M, Wada E (1984) Stepwise enrichment of δ15N along food chains: further evidence and the relation between δ15N and animal age. Geochim cosmochim Acta 48: 1135–1140

    Google Scholar 

  • Omura H, Ohsumi S, Nemoto T, Nasu K, Kasuya T (1969) Black right whales in the North Pacific. Scient Rep Whales Res Inst, Tokyo 21: 1–78

    Google Scholar 

  • Payne R (1983) Behavior of southern right whales. Unpublished MS submitted to workshop meeting of the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission on the status of right whales, June 1983

  • Payne R, Rowntree V, Perkins JS, Cooke JG, Lankester K (1990) Population size, trends and reproductive parameters of the right whales (Eubalaena australis) off Peninsula Valdes, Argentina. In: Hammond PS, Mizroch SA, Donovan GP (eds) Report of the International whaling Commission, Special Issue 12. International whaling Commission, Cambridge, pp 271–278

    Google Scholar 

  • Rau GH, Sweeney RE, Kaplan IR (1982) Plankton 13C:12C ratio changes with latitude: differences between northern and southern oceans. Deep-Sea Res 29: 1035–1039

    Google Scholar 

  • Rau GH, Takahashi T, Des Marais DJ, Sullivan CW (1991) Particulate organic matter δ13C variations across the Drake Passage. J geophys Res 96: 15,131–15,135

    Google Scholar 

  • Schell DM, Haubenstock N, Vinette K (1992) Carbon isotope ratios in zooplankton of the Bering and Chukchi Seas as markers of aging and habitat usage for the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus). In: Nagel PA (ed) Results of the 3rd joint US-USSR Bering and Chukchi Seas Expedition (BERPAC), US Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington DC

    Google Scholar 

  • Schell DM, Saupe SM (1993) Feeding and growth as indicated by stable isotopes. In: Burns JJ, Montague JJ, Cowles CJ (eds) The bowhead whale. Special Publication No. 2, The Society for Marine Mammalogy, Lawrence, Kansas, pp 491–509

    Google Scholar 

  • Schell DM, Saupe SM, Haubenstock N (1989a) Natural isotope abundances in bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) baleen: markers of aging and habitat usage. Ecol Stud 68: 260–269

    Google Scholar 

  • Schell DM, Saupe SM, Haubenstock N (1989b) Bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) growth and feeding as estimated by δ13C techniques. Mar Biol 103: 433–443

    Google Scholar 

  • Sholto-Douglas AD, Field JG, James AG, van der Merwe NJ (1991) 13C/12C and 15N/14N isotope ratios in the southern Benguela ecosystem: indicators of food web relationships among different size classes of plankton and pelagic fish; differences between fish muscle and bone collagen tissues. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 78: 23–31

    Google Scholar 

  • Thomson DH (1987) Energetics of bowheads. In: Richardson WJ (ed) Importance of the eastern Alaskan Beaufort Sea to feeding bowhead whales, 1985–1986. US Minerals Management Service, Final Report. National Technical Information Service, Springfield, Virginia, pp 417–447

    Google Scholar 

  • Whitehead H, Payne R (1981) New techniques for assessing populations of right whales without killing them. In: Mammals in the seas. FAO Fish Ser No. 5 3: 189–209

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Additional information

Communicated by O. Kinne, Oldendorf/Luhe

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Best, P.B., Schell, D.M. Stable isotopes in southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) baleen as indicators of seasonal movements, feeding and growth. Marine Biology 124, 483–494 (1996). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00351030

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00351030

Keywords

  • Stable Isotope
  • Isotope Ratio
  • Carbon Isotope
  • Isotopic Signature
  • Nitrogen Isotope