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Keywords:

  • narwhal;
  • Monodon monoceros;
  • sea ice;
  • physiology;
  • climate change;
  • myoglobin;
  • skeletal muscle;
  • aerobic dive limit;
  • slow twitch fiber

Abstract

Rapid changes in sea ice cover associated with global warming are poised to have marked impacts on polar marine mammals. Here we examine skeletal muscle characteristics supporting swimming and diving in one polar species, the narwhal, and use these attributes to further document this cetacean's vulnerability to unpredictable sea ice conditions and changing ecosystems. We found that extreme morphological and physiological adaptations enabling year-round Arctic residency by narwhals limit behavioral flexibility for responding to alternations in sea ice. In contrast to the greyhound-like muscle profile of acrobatic odontocetes, the longissimus dorsi of narwhals is comprised of 86.8%± 7.7% slow twitch oxidative fibers, resembling the endurance morph of human marathoners. Myoglobin content, 7.87 ± 1.72 g/100 g wet muscle, is one of the highest levels measured for marine mammals. Calculated maximum aerobic swimming distance between breathing holes in ice is <1,450 m, which permits routine use of only 2.6%–10.4% of ice-packed foraging grounds in Baffin Bay. These first measurements of narwhal exercise physiology reveal extreme specialization of skeletal muscles for moving in a challenging ecological niche. This study also demonstrates the power of using basic physiological attributes to predict species vulnerabilities to environmental perturbation before critical population disturbance occurs.