Variation in blubber cortisol levels in a recovering humpback whale population inhabiting a rapidly changing environment.
Glucocorticoids are regularly used as biomarkers of relative health for individuals and populations. Around the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP), baleen whales have and continue to experience threats, including commercial harvest, prey limitations and habitat change driven by rapid warming, and increased human presence via ecotourism. Here, we measured demographic variation and differences across the foraging season in blubber cortisol levels of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) over two years around the WAP. Cortisol concentrations were determined from 305 biopsy samples of unique individuals. We found no significant difference in the cortisol concentration between male and female whales. However, we observed significant differences across demographic groups of females and a significant decrease in the population across the feeding season. We also assessed whether COVID-19-related reductions in tourism in 2021 along the WAP correlated with lower cortisol levels across the population. The decline in vessel presence in 2021 was associated with a significant decrease in humpback whale blubber cortisol concentrations at the population level. Our findings provide critical contextual data on how these hormones vary naturally in a population over time, show direct associations between cortisol levels and human presence, and will enable comparisons among species experiencing different levels of human disturbance.
Pallin, LJ; Botero-Acosta, N; Steel, D; Baker, CS; Casey, C; Costa, DP; Goldbogen, JA; Johnston, DW; Kellar, NM; Modest, M; Nichols, R; Roberts, D; Roberts, M; Savenko, O; Friedlaender, AS
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