Stratification of lipids, fatty acids and organochlorine contaminants in blubber of white whales and killer whales

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Margaret M. Krahn
David P. Herman
Gina M. Ylitalo
Catherine A. Sloan
Douglas G. Burrows
Roderick C. Hobbs
Barbara A. Mahoney
Gladis K. Yanagida
John Calambokidis
Sue E. Moore


The biopsy 2 via dart, trocar or surgery 2 is becoming the preferred protocol for sampling skin and blubber of many cetacean species, because a small sample from a healthy animal may provide better information than a larger sample collected via necropsy from an ill or emaciated animal. Furthermore, the biopsy is often the only means of obtaining samples (e.g. for threatened or endangered species). Because biopsy darts collect only a small sample of tissue 2 and blubber can be heterogeneous in structure and composition 2 it is essential to compare the results obtained from biopsies to those found by analysing full-thickness blubber samples obtained via necropsy. This manuscript compares blubber stratification in two odontocete species, white whales (Delphinapterus leucas) and killer whales (Orcinus orca). Five parameters (i.e. lipid percent and classes, contaminant concentrations and profiles, fatty acid profiles) were measured by blubber depth. Results of these comparisons strongly suggest that biopsy results must be interpreted with caution and in conjunction with results from species-specific blubber depth profiling. For example, lipid classes measured in biopsy samples of white whales and killer whales were similar to those for equivalent-depth samples obtained by necropsy. In addition, lipid-adjusted contaminant concentrations measured in dart or trocar samples adequately represented those obtained by necropsy of both species. Conversely, the lipid content in biopsy samples was lower than that found in same-depth necropsied samples due to loss of lipid during sampling. Also, because of the high level of fatty acid stratification observed, fatty acid profiles from the outer blubber layer collected via biopsy from both species are less likely than the metabolically active inner layer to be useful in determining the prey species consumed by these odontocetes. This study demonstrates, for white and killer whales, that properly interpreted results from blubber biopsies can provide valuable information about the body condition, health and life history of individual animals.

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Krahn MM, Herman DP, Ylitalo GM, Sloan CA, Burrows DG, Hobbs RC, et al. Stratification of lipids, fatty acids and organochlorine contaminants in blubber of white whales and killer whales. jcrm [Internet]. 2023 Mar. 15 [cited 2023 Nov. 30];6(2):175-89. Available from:

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