Little is known about the postnatal development of the physiological characteristics that support breath-hold in cetaceans, despite their need to swim and dive at birth. Arctic species have the additional demand of avoiding entrapment while navigating under sea ice, where breathing holes are patchily distributed and ephemeral. This is the first investigation of the ontogeny of the biochemistry of the locomotor muscle in a year-round Arctic-dwelling cetacean (beluga whale, Delphinapterus leucas). Compared with what we know about other cetaceans, belugas are born with high myoglobin content (1.56±0.02 g 100 g−1 wet muscle mass, N=2) that matures rapidly. Myoglobin increased by 452% during the first year after birth and achieved adult levels (6.91±0.35 g 100 g−1 wet muscle mass, N=9) by 14 months postpartum. Buffering capacity was 48.88±0.69 slykes (N=2) at birth; adult levels (84.31±1.38 slykes, N=9) were also achieved by 14 months postpartum. As the oxygen stores matured, calculated aerobic dive limit more than doubled over the first year of life, undoubtedly facilitating the movements of calves under sea ice. Nonetheless, small body size theoretically continues to constrain the diving ability of newly weaned 2 year olds, as they only had 74% and 69% of the aerobic breath-hold capacity of larger adult female and male counterparts. These assessments enhance our knowledge of the biology of cetaceans and provide insight into age-specific flexibility to alter underwater behaviors, as may be required with the ongoing alterations in the Arctic marine ecosystem associated with climate change and increased anthropogenic activities.
The authors declare no competing or financial interests.
S.R.N. developed the approach and secured the funding for the research, performed the laboratory and data analyses, and prepared the manuscript. R.S. secured the funding for sample collection, collaborated with the Alaskan subsistence hunters to secure the muscle samples from the beluga whales and revised the manuscript.
This project was primarily funded by the North Pacific Research Board (project no. 1406). Funding for fieldwork was provided by North Slope Borough.
- Received May 25, 2016.
- Accepted June 30, 2016.
- © 2016. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd