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.
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.
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.
We report herein a choroid plexus papilloma in a beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas). This case was positive for choroid plexus tumor marker Kir7.1 on immunohistochemistry. These results and the high conservation of Kir7.1 across species at the amino acid sequence level strongly suggest that antibodies directed against Kir7.1 not only can be employed for the diagnosis of choroid plexus tumors in cetaceans, but are also likely to be diagnostically useful in other animal species.