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Concept: Beluga whale

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The beluga whale is a cetacean that inhabits arctic and subarctic regions, and is the only living member of the genus Delphinapterus. The genome of the beluga whale was determined using DNA sequencing approaches that employed both microfluidic partitioning library and non-partitioned library construction. The former allowed for the construction of a highly contiguous assembly with a scaffold N50 length of over 19 Mbp and total reconstruction of 2.32 Gbp. To aid our understanding of the functional elements, transcriptome data was also derived from brain, duodenum, heart, lung, spleen, and liver tissue. Assembled sequence and all of the underlying sequence data are available at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) under the Bioproject accession number PRJNA360851A.

Concepts: Liver, Sequence, Megafauna, Narwhal, Cook Inlet, Beluga whale, Pour la suite du monde, Monodontidae

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Cetaceans are remarkable for exhibiting group-specific behavioral traditions or cultures in several behavioral domains (e.g., calls, behavioral tactics), and the question of whether they can be acquired socially, for example through imitative processes, remains open. Here we used a “Do as other does” paradigm to experimentally study the ability of a beluga to imitate familiar intransitive (body-oriented) actions demonstrated by a conspecific. The participant was first trained to copy three familiar behaviors on command (training phase) and then was tested for her ability to generalize the learned “Do as the other does” command to a different set of three familiar behaviors (testing phase). We found that the beluga (1) was capable of learning the copy command signal “Do what-the-other-does”; (2) exhibited high matching accuracy for trained behaviors (mean = 84% of correct performance) after making the first successful copy on command; (3) copied successfully the new set of three familiar generalization behaviors that were untrained to the copy command (range of first copy = 12 to 35 trials); and (4) deployed a high level of matching accuracy (mean = 83%) after making the first copy of an untrained behavior on command. This is the first evidence of contextual imitation of intransitive (body-oriented) movements in the beluga and adds to the reported findings on production imitation of sounds in this species and production imitation of sounds and motor actions in several cetaceans, especially dolphins and killer whales. Collectively these findings highlight the notion that cetaceans have a natural propensity at skillfully and proficiently matching the sounds and body movements demonstrated by conspecifics, a fitness-enhancing propensity in the context of cooperative hunting and anti-predatory defense tactics, and of alliance formation strategies that have been documented in these species' natural habitats. Future work should determine if the beluga can also imitate novel motor actions.

Concepts: Psychology, Behavior, Whale, Narwhal, Cook Inlet, Beluga whale, Pour la suite du monde, Monodontidae

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While hearing is the primary sensory modality for odontocetes, there are few data addressing variation within a natural population. This work describes the hearing ranges (4-150 kHz) and sensitivities of seven apparently healthy, wild beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) during a population health assessment project that captured and released belugas in Bristol Bay, Alaska. The baseline hearing abilities and subsequent variations were addressed. Hearing was measured using auditory evoked potentials (AEPs). All audiograms showed a typical cetacean U-shape; substantial variation (>30 dB) was found between most and least sensitive thresholds. All animals heard well, up to at least 128 kHz. Two heard up to 150 kHz. Lowest auditory thresholds (35-45 dB) were identified in the range 45-80 kHz. Greatest differences in hearing abilities occurred at both the high end of the auditory range and at frequencies of maximum sensitivity. In general, wild beluga hearing was quite sensitive. Hearing abilities were similar to those of belugas measured in zoological settings, reinforcing the comparative importance of both settings. The relative degree of variability across the wild belugas suggests that audiograms from multiple individuals are needed to properly describe the maximum sensitivity and population variance for odontocetes. Hearing measures were easily incorporated into field-based settings. This detailed examination of hearing abilities in wild Bristol Bay belugas provides a basis for a better understanding of the potential impact of anthropogenic noise on a noise-sensitive species. Such information may help design noise-limiting mitigation measures that could be applied to areas heavily influenced and inhabited by endangered belugas.

Concepts: Sensitivity and specificity, Evoked potential, Frequency, Sound, Narwhal, Cook Inlet, Beluga whale, Pour la suite du monde

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For Canadian Arctic indigenous populations, marine mammal (MM) traditional foods (TFs) represent sources of both important nutrients and hazardous environmental contaminants. Food preparation is known to impact the nutrient and environmental contaminant content of processed items, yet the impacts of preparation on indigenous Arctic MM TFs remain poorly characterized. In order to determine how the various processes involved in preparing beluga blubber TFs affect their levels of nutrients and environmental contaminants, we collected blubber samples from 2 male beluga whales, aged 24 and 37 years, captured during the 2014 summer hunting season in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, and processed them according to local TF preparation methods. We measured the levels of select nutrients [selenium (Se), polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)] and contaminants [organochlorine pesticides, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers, polychlorinated biphenyls, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), mercury (Hg)] in raw and prepared (boiled, roasted, aged) beluga blubber TFs. The impacts of beluga blubber TF preparation methods on nutrient and environmental contaminant levels were inconsistent, as the majority of processes either did not appear to influence concentrations or affected the two belugas differently. However, roasting and ageing beluga blubber consistently impacted certain compounds: roasting blubber increased concentrations of hydrophilic substances (Se and certain PFASs) through solvent depletion and deposited PAHs from cookfire smoke. The solid-liquid phase separation involved in ageing blubber depleted hydrophilic elements (Se, Hg) and some ionogenic PFASs from the lipid-rich liquid oil phase, while PUFA levels appeared to increase, and hydrophobic persistent organic pollutants were retained. Ageing blubber adjacent to in-use smokehouses also resulted in considerable PAH deposition to processed samples. Our findings demonstrated that contaminant concentration differences were greater between the two sets of whale samples, based on age differences, than they were within each set of whale samples, due to variable preparation methods. When considering means to minimize human contaminant exposure while maximizing nutrient intake, consumption of aged liquid from younger male whales would be preferred, based on possible PUFA enhancement and selective depletion of hydrophilic environmental contaminants in this food item.

Concepts: Nutrition, Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, Polychlorinated biphenyl, Whale, Narwhal, Cook Inlet, Beluga whale, Pour la suite du monde

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Research with wild belugas has indicated that, during mother-calf swims, calves spend more time on their mothers' right side, which enables the calves to maintain visual contact with their mothers using their left eye. This bias may facilitate processing of social information by the right hemisphere, much like human and non-human primates and other animals. The current study explored the social laterality of the Cook Inlet, AK beluga population in comparison to a beluga population in managed care. As expected, the results indicated that the calves spent more time on the mothers' right side than the left for both populations. We also examined the developmental trend for the belugas in managed care and found that the calves generally preferred to swim on their mother’s right side across most months, although there was an inversion during the third quarter when a left-side preference appeared. Individual differences were present. The results corroborate previous research conducted with two wild beluga populations from the White Sea and from the Sea of Okhotsk in which a left-eye bias was displayed by calves when swimming with their mothers. In conclusion, a preference for a lateralized swim position appears to be conserved across wild and managed care settings, and this lateralized swim position may facilitate the processing of social information or familiar stimuli for the calves.

Concepts: Human, Left-wing politics, Primate, Right-wing politics, Swimming, Cook Inlet, Beluga whale

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The negative impact of man-made noise on the hearing of odontocetes attracts considerable recent attention. Mostly permanent or temporary reductions in sensitivity are known as permanent or temporary threshold shift (PTS or TTS, respectively) were investigated. In the present study, the effects of a fatiguing sound on the hearing of a beluga whale Delphinapterus leucas within a wide range of levels of test signals was investigated. The fatiguing noise was half-octave band-limited noise centered at 32 kHz. Post-exposure effects of this noise on the evoked responses to test stimuli (rhythmic pip trains with a 45-kHz center frequency) at various levels (from threshold to 60 dB above threshold) was measured. For baseline (pre-exposure) responses, the magnitude-vs-level function featured a segment of steep magnitude dependence on level (up to 30 dB above threshold) that was followed by a plateau segment that featured little dependence on level (30 o 55 dB above threshold). Post-exposure, the function shifted upward along the level scale. The shift was 23 dB at the threshold and up to 33 dB at supra threshold level. Due to the plateau in the magnitude-vs-level function, post-exposure suppression of responses depended on the stimulus level such that higher levels corresponded to less suppression. The experimental data may be modelled based on the compressive non-linearity of the cochlea. According to the model, post-exposure responses of the cochlea to high-level stimuli are minimally suppressed compared to the pre-exposure responses, despite a substantially increased threshold.

Concepts: Auditory system, Sound, Megafauna, Narwhal, Cook Inlet, Beluga whale, Pour la suite du monde

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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.

Concepts: Childbirth, Whale, Myoglobin, Narwhal, Cook Inlet, Beluga whale, Pour la suite du monde, Monodontidae

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The endangered Cook Inlet (Alaska, USA) stock of beluga whales Delphinapterus leucas declined 47% between 1994 and 1998, from an estimated 653 whales to 347 whales, with a continued decline to approximately 312 in 2012. Between 1998 and 2013, 164 known dead strandings were reported by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Only 38 of these animals, or 23% of the known stranded carcasses, were necropsied. Carcasses were found between April and October. The majority of animals necropsied were adults (n = 25), followed by juveniles (n = 6), calves (n = 3), and aborted fetuses (n = 4). Eight of the 11 mature females were pregnant, post-partum, or lactating. Many (82%) of these belugas were in moderate to advanced autolysis, which hampered determination of a cause of death (COD). Each animal had a single primary COD assigned within a broad set of categories. The CODs were unknown (29%), trauma (18%), perinatal mortality (13%), mass stranding (13%), single stranding (11%), malnutrition (8%), or disease (8%). Other disease processes were coded as contributory or incidental to COD. Multiple animals had mild to moderate verminous pneumonia due to Stenurus arctomarinus, renal granulomas due to Crassicauda giliakiana, and ulcerative gastritis due to Anisakis sp. Each stranding affords a unique opportunity to obtain natural history data and evidence of human interactions, and, by long-term monitoring, to characterize pathologies of importance to individual and population health.

Concepts: Pregnancy, Mortality rate, Fetus, Abortion, Narwhal, Cook Inlet, Beluga whale, Pour la suite du monde

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A total of 190 nematodes was isolated from the stomachs of 13 beluga whales Delphinapterus leucas from the Arctic part of Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait. Infection intensity ranged from 1 to 57 specimens and prevalence was 84.62%. Morphological examination of the nematodes revealed the presence of 3 species: Pseudoterranova decipiens sensu lato, Contracaecum osculatum s.l., and Anisakis simplex s.l. Molecular analysis by PCR-based restriction fragment length polymorphism (PCR-RFLP) resulted in the identification of 4 species: Pseudoterranova bulbosa, Contracaecum osculatum A and C, and Anisakis simplex sensu stricto. The nematodes were present in 3 developmental stages: L3 (159 specimens), L4 (16 larvae), and adults (15 worms: 11 males and 4 females).

Concepts: Canada, Arctic Ocean, Quebec, Narwhal, Anisakis, Cook Inlet, Beluga whale, Pour la suite du monde

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Data on frequency tuning in odontocetes are contradictory: different authors have reported filter qualities from 2 to almost 50. In this study, frequency tuning was measured in a beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) using a rippled-noise test stimulus in conjunction with the auditory evoked potential (AEP) technique. The response to ripple reversions was considered to indicate resolvability of the ripple pattern. The limit of ripple-pattern resolution ranged from 20 to 32 ripples per octave (rpo). A model of interaction of the ripple spectrum with frequency-tuned filters suggests that this resolution limit requires a filter quality of 29-46.

Concepts: Evoked potential, Megafauna, Musical tuning, Narwhal, Cook Inlet, Beluga whale, Pour la suite du monde