Diving mammals use blubber for a variety of structural and physiological functions, including buoyancy, streamlining, thermoregulation, and energy storage. Estimating blubber stores provides proxies for body condition, nutritional status, and health. Blubber stores may vary topographically within individuals, across seasons, and with age, sex, and reproductive status; therefore, a single full-depth blubber biopsy does not provide an accurate measure of blubber depth, and additional biopsies are limited because they result in open wounds. We examined high-resolution ultrasound as a noninvasive method for assessing blubber stores by sampling blubber depth at 11 locations on beluga whales in Alaska. Blubber mass was estimated as a proportion of body mass (40% from the literature) and compared to a function of volume calculated using ultrasound blubber depth measurements in a truncated cone. Blubber volume was converted to total and mass-specific blubber mass estimates based on the density of beluga blubber. There was no significant difference in mean total blubber mass between the 2 estimates (R2 = 0.88); however, body mass alone predicted only 68% of the variation in mass-specific blubber stores in juveniles, 7% for adults in the fall, and 33% for adults in the spring. Mass-specific blubber stores calculated from ultrasound measurements were highly variable. Adults had significantly greater blubber stores in the fall (0.48 ± 0.02 kg/kgMB) than in the spring (0.33 ± 0.02 kg/kgMB). There was no seasonal effect in juveniles. High-resolution ultrasound is a more powerful, noninvasive method for assessing blubber stores in wild belugas, allowing for precise measurements at multiple locations.
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Vol. 97 • No. 4