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Conserv Physiol. 2014 Aug 12;2(1):cou030. doi: 10.1093/conphys/cou030. eCollection 2014.

Baleen hormones: a novel tool for retrospective assessment of stress and reproduction in bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus).

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John H. Prescott Marine Laboratory, Research Department, New England Aquarium, Boston, MA 02110, USA.
Department of Wildlife Management, North Slope Borough, PO Box 69, Barrow, AK 99723, USA; Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 902 N. Koyukuk Drive, PO Box 757000, Fairbanks, AK 99775-7000, USA.
Department of Wildlife Management, North Slope Borough, PO Box 69, Barrow, AK 99723, USA.


Arctic marine mammals are facing increasing levels of many anthropogenic stressors. Novel tools are needed for assessment of stress physiology and potential impacts of these stressors on health, reproduction and survival. We have investigated baleen as a possible novel tissue type for retrospective assessment of stress and reproductive hormones. We found that pulverized baleen powder from bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) contained immunoreactive cortisol and progesterone that were detectable with commercially available enzyme immunoassay kits. Both assays passed parallelism and accuracy validations using baleen extracts. We analysed cortisol and progesterone at the base of the baleen plate (most recently grown baleen) from 16 bowhead whales of both sexes. For a subset of 11 whales, we also analysed older baleen from 10, 20 and 30 cm distal to the base of the baleen plate. Immunoreactive cortisol and progesterone were detectable in all baleen samples tested. In base samples, females had significantly higher concentrations of cortisol and progesterone compared with males. Cortisol concentrations in older baleen (10, 20 and 30 cm locations) were significantly lower than at the base and did not exhibit correlations with age-class or sex. Progesterone concentrations were significantly higher in females than in males at all baleen locations tested and were significantly higher in pregnant females than in non-pregnant females. Four of five mature females showed dramatic variation in progesterone concentrations at different locations along the baleen plate that may be indicative of previous pregnancies or luteal phases. In contrast, all males and all immature females had uniformly low progesterone. Baleen hormone analysis is a novel approach that, with further methodological development, may be useful for determining individual longitudinal profiles of reproductive cycles and stress responses.


Baleen; cortisol; progesterone; reproduction; stress; whales

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