Most of our knowledge on reproductive biology of gray whales dates back to scientific research conducted during commercial whaling in the late 1950s and 1960s. The goal of the present study was to provide updated insights on reproductive physiology of gray whales, using progesterone and testosterone as biomarkers. We measured hormone concentrations using enzyme immunoassay (EIA) techniques in blubber biopsies collected from 106 individual whales from March to November over a span of 12 years (2004–2016) between California and Alaska. We found testosterone concentrations in males to increase significantly with age (P = 0.03). Adult males showed significantly elevated testosterone concentrations when sampled in the fall compared to the summer (P = 0.01), likely indicating physiological preparation for mating. We measured testosterone concentrations in females of different age classes, but no statistical differences were found. We found significantly higher progesterone concentrations in pregnant females compared to non-pregnant females and adult males (P< 0.001), indicating progesterone is a valid biomarker for pregnancy in gray whales. Both female and male calves had elevated progesterone concentrations, suggesting maternal transfer via lactation. We fit a mixture of two normal distributions to progesterone data from all non-calf females to identify clusters of high and low progesterone and estimated the probability of being pregnant for whales of unknown reproductive status. With this approach we identified likely pregnant and non-pregnant animals. This study represents an important milestone on reproductive profiles in this population, that can be used to estimate more accurate and precise reproductive parameters to be used for better understanding population dynamics of gray whales.
Melica, V., S. Atkinson, J. Calambokidis, A. Lang, J. Scordino, and F. Mueter. 2021. Application of Endocrine Biomarkers to Update Information on Reproductive Physiology in Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus). PLoS ONE 16(8): e0255368. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0255368Download PDF
Download Supplemental Materials