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Sci Total Environ. 2004 Sep 20;331(1-3):69-82.

Baleen as a biomonitor of mercury content and dietary history of North Atlantic minke whales (Balaenopetra acutorostrata): combining elemental and stable isotope approaches.

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  • 1Prairie and Northern Wildlife Research Center, Canadian Wildlife Service, 115 Perimeter Road, Saskatoon, SK, S7 N 0X4, Canada.


Baleen is an incrementally-growing tissue of balaenopteran whales which preserves relatively well over time in museums and some archeological sites, and, therefore might be useful for studies examining long-term changes of metal levels in whales. This study examined Hg and stable C and N isotopic composition of baleen plates of the North Atlantic minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), which continues to be a food source for people in Greenland and elsewhere. We compared the Hg levels and stable isotopes of major tissues (kidney, liver and muscle) with those of baleen plates to see whether baleen could be used as a biomonitor of variations of Hg intake and diet both between individuals and within individuals over time. Mercury was significantly correlated with concentrations in all tissues (kidney, liver and muscle). Stable C and N isotopes in baleen were generally similar to those of muscle, which reflects the recent (approximately one month) feeding of the whale, but in some individuals there were significant differences between baleen and muscle. Sectioning of baleen into 1 cm longitudinal increments showed that these differences were due to marked dietary shifts by some individuals over time that had been recorded in the baleen but were lost from the muscle record. Whole baleen C and N isotopes were better correlated with tissue Hg levels, suggesting that baleen may provide a more reliable indicator of long-term average diet, which in turn may be better related to Hg accumulation in tissues than the shorter-term diet record contained in muscle.

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