Concept: Cook Inlet
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.
Migrations are often influenced by seasonal environmental gradients that are increasingly being altered by climate change. The consequences of rapid changes in Arctic sea ice have the potential to affect migrations of a number of marine species whose timing is temporally matched to seasonal sea ice cover. This topic has not been investigated for Pacific Arctic beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) that follow matrilineally maintained autumn migrations in the waters around Alaska and Russia. For the sympatric Eastern Chukchi Sea (‘Chukchi’) and Eastern Beaufort Sea (‘Beaufort’) beluga populations, we examined changes in autumn migration timing as related to delayed regional sea ice freeze-up since the 1990s, using two independent data sources (satellite telemetry data and passive acoustics) for both populations. We compared dates of migration between ‘early’ (1993-2002) and ‘late’ (2004-2012) tagging periods. During the late tagging period, Chukchi belugas had significantly delayed migrations (by 2 to >4 weeks, depending on location) from the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Spatial analyses also revealed that departure from Beaufort Sea foraging regions by Chukchi whales was postponed in the late period. Chukchi beluga autumn migration timing occurred significantly later as regional sea ice freeze-up timing became later in the Beaufort, Chukchi, and Bering seas. In contrast, Beaufort belugas did not shift migration timing between periods, nor was migration timing related to freeze-up timing, other than for southward migration at the Bering Strait. Passive acoustic data from 2008 to 2014 provided independent and supplementary support for delayed migration from the Beaufort Sea (4 day yr(-1) ) by Chukchi belugas. Here, we report the first phenological study examining beluga whale migrations within the context of their rapidly transforming Pacific Arctic ecosystem, suggesting flexible responses that may enable their persistence yet also complicate predictions of how belugas may fare in the future.
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.
There has been extensive sea ice loss in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas where two beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) populations occur between July-November. Our goal was to develop population-specific beluga habitat selection models that quantify relative use of sea ice and bathymetric features related to oceanographic processes, which can provide context to the importance of changing sea ice conditions. We established habitat selection models that incorporated daily sea ice measures (sea ice concentration, proximity to ice edge and dense ice) and bathymetric features (slope, depth, proximity to the continental slope, Barrow Canyon, and shore) to establish quantitative estimates of habitat use for the Eastern Chukchi Sea (‘Chukchi’) and Eastern Beaufort Sea (‘Beaufort’) populations. We applied ‘used v. available’ resource selection functions to locations of 65 whales tagged from 1993-2012, revealing large variations in seasonal habitat selection that were distinct between sex and population groups. Chukchi whales of both sexes were predicted to use areas in close proximity to Barrow Canyon (typically <200 km) as well as the continental slope in summer, although deeper water and denser ice were stronger predictors for males than females. Habitat selection differed more between sexes for Beaufort belugas. Beaufort males selected higher ice concentrations (≥40%) than females (0-40%) in July-August. Proximity to shore (<200 km) strongly predicted summer habitat of Beaufort females, while distance to the ice edge was important for male habitat selection, especially during westward migration in September. Overall, our results indicate that sea ice variables were rarely the primary drivers of beluga summer-fall habitat selection. While diminished sea ice may indirectly affect belugas through changes in the ecosystem, associations with bathymetric features that affect prey availability seemed key to habitat selection during summer and fall. These results provide a benchmark by which to assess future changes in beluga habitat use of the Pacific Arctic.
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.
Asymmetrical intraguild predation (AIGP), which combines both predation and competition between predator species, is pervasive in nature with relative strengths varying by prey availability. But with species redistributions associated with climate change, the response by endemic predators within an AIGP context to changing biotic-abiotic conditions over time (i.e. seasonal and decadal) has yet to be quantified. Furthermore, little is known on AIGP dynamics in ecosystems undergoing rapid directional change such as the Arctic. Here, we investigate the flexibility of AIGP among two predators in the same trophic guild: beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) and Greenland halibut (Reinhardtius hippoglossoides), by season and over 30 years in Cumberland Sound-a system where forage fish capelin (Mallotus villosus) have recently become more available. Using stable isotopes, we illustrate different predator responses to temporal shifts in forage fish availability. On a seasonal cycle, beluga consumed less Greenland halibut and increased consumption of forage fish during summer, contrasting a constant consumption rate of forage fish by Greenland halibut year-round leading to decreased AIGP pressure between predators. Over a decadal scale (1982-2012), annual consumption of forage fish by beluga increased with a concomitant decline in the consumption of Greenland halibut, thereby indicating decreased AIGP pressure between predators in concordance with increased forage fish availability. The long-term changes of AIGP pressure between endemic predators illustrated here highlights climate-driven environmental alterations to interspecific intraguild interactions in the Arctic.
The annual return of beluga whales, Delphinapterus leucas, to traditional seasonal locations across the Arctic may involve migratory culture, while the convergence of discrete summering aggregations on common wintering grounds may facilitate outbreeding. Natal philopatry and cultural inheritance, however, has been difficult to assess as earlier studies were of too short a duration, while genetic analyses of breeding patterns, especially across the beluga’s Pacific range, have been hampered by inadequate sampling and sparse information on wintering areas. Using a much expanded sample and genetic marker set comprising 1,647 whales, spanning more than two decades and encompassing all major coastal summering aggregations in the Pacific Ocean, we found evolutionary-level divergence among three geographic regions: the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas, and the Sea of Okhotsk (Φst = 0.11-0.32, Rst = 0.09-0.13), and likely demographic independence of (Fst-mtDNA = 0.02-0.66), and in many cases limited gene flow (Fst-nDNA = 0.0-0.02; K = 5-6) among, summering groups within regions. Assignment tests identified few immigrants within summering aggregations, linked migrating groups to specific summering areas, and found that some migratory corridors comprise whales from multiple subpopulations (PBAYES = 0.31:0.69). Further, dispersal is male-biased and substantial numbers of closely related whales congregate together at coastal summering areas. Stable patterns of heterogeneity between areas and consistently high proportions (~20%) of close kin (including parent-offspring) sampled up to 20 years apart within areas (G = 0.2-2.9, p>0.5) is the first direct evidence of natal philopatry to migration destinations in belugas. Using recent satellite telemetry findings on belugas we found that the spatial proximity of winter ranges has a greater influence on the degree of both individual and genetic exchange than summer ranges (rwinter-Fst-mtDNA = 0.9, rsummer-Fst-nDNA = 0.1). These findings indicate widespread natal philopatry to summering aggregation and entire migratory circuits, and provide compelling evidence that migratory culture and kinship helps maintain demographically discrete beluga stocks that can overlap in time and space.
Some Arctic estuaries serve as substrate rubbing sites for beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in the summer, representing a specialized resource for the species. Understanding how environmental variation affects the species' behavior is essential to management of these habitats in coming years as the climate changes. Spatiotemporal and environmental variables were recorded for behavioral observations, during which focal groups of whales in an estuary were video-recorded for enumeration and behavioral analysis. Multiple polynomial linear regression models were optimized to identify the effects of spatiotemporal and environmental conditions on group size, composition, and the frequency of behaviors being performed. Results suggest that belugas take advantage of environmental variation to express behaviors that 1) protect young, e.g., bringing calves close to shore during cloudier days, obscuring visualization from terrestrial predators; 2) avoid predation, e.g., rubbing against substrates at higher Beaufort sea states to obscure visualization, and resting during low tides while swimming on outgoing tides to avoid stranding; and 3) optimize bioenergetic resources, e.g., swimming during lower Beaufort sea states and clearer days. Predictive models like the ones presented in this study can inform conservation management strategies as environmental conditions change in future years.
Assessing the health of marine mammal sentinel species is crucial to understanding the impacts of environmental perturbations on marine ecosystems and human health. In Arctic regions, beluga whales, Delphinapterus leucas, are upper level predators that may serve as a sentinel species, potentially forecasting impacts on human health. While gene expression profiling from blood transcriptomes has widely been used to assess health status and environmental exposures in human and veterinary medicine, its use in wildlife has been limited due to the lack of available genomes and baseline data. To this end we constructed the first beluga whale blood transcriptome de novo from samples collected during annual health assessments of the healthy Bristol Bay, AK stock during 2012-2014 to establish baseline information on the content and variation of the beluga whale blood transcriptome. The Trinity transcriptome assembly from beluga was comprised of 91,325 transcripts that represented a wide array of cellular functions and processes and was extremely similar in content to the blood transcriptome of another cetacean, the bottlenose dolphin. Expression of hemoglobin transcripts was much lower in beluga (25.6% of TPM, transcripts per million) than has been observed in many other mammals. A T12A amino acid substitution in the HBB sequence of beluga whales, but not bottlenose dolphins, was identified and may play a role in low temperature adaptation. The beluga blood transcriptome was extremely stable between sex and year, with no apparent clustering of samples by principle components analysis and <4% of genes differentially expressed (EBseq, FDR<0.05). While the impacts of season, sexual maturity, disease, and geography on the beluga blood transcriptome must be established, the presence of transcripts involved in stress, detoxification, and immune functions indicate that blood gene expression analyses may provide information on health status and exposure. This study provides a wealth of transcriptomic data on beluga whales and provides a sizeable pool of preliminary data for comparison with other studies in beluga whale.
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.