Zoological Studies

Vol. 54, 2015

Topographical distribution of blubber in finless porpoises (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis sunameri): a result from adapting to living in coastal waters

Xianyuan Zeng1,2, Junhua Ji1,2, Yujiang Hao1* and Ding Wang1*

1Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, 7 South Donghu Road, Wuchang District, Wuhan 430072, China
2University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, 19 Yuquan Road, Shijingshan District, Beijing 100049, China

Background: Blubber has many functions, among which energy storage, thermoregulation, buoyancy, and hydrodynamic streamlining are the most frequently cited. Within and between taxa, variations in its structure and distribution likely reflect different adaptations of a species to its life history requirements, environment, health, and function. Here, we use ultrasound to describe the distribution of blubber in the finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis sunameri) based on examinations of 34 fresh cadavers recovered as accidental fisheries bycatch.
Measurements of blubber depth determined by ultrasound positively correlated with conventional measurements using a scalpel and calipers. Whereas conventional surgical incision and visual examination revealed two layers of blubber, ultrasound revealed up to three layers; thus, ultrasound reveals additional structural detail in blubber while crude necropsy techniques do not. Across life history categories, ultrasound revealed the distribution of inner blubber to be topographically consistent with that of full-depth blubber. Blubber in the dorsal region was stratified into three layers and was significantly thicker than that in the lateral and ventral regions, in which a middle layer was normally absent.
Conclusions: Ultrasound provides a fast, effective, and accurate means to determine blubber thickness and structure, and thus, assessment of the health of fresh finless porpoise carcasses. Blubber depth is determined largely by the thickness of the inner and middle layers, wherein lipids are concentrated. The thickening of blubber in the dorsal thoracic-abdominal region suggests multiple roles of thermal insulation, lipid storage, and, we speculate, to facilitate vertical stability in the complex shallow and estuarine waters in which this animal absent of a dorsal fin occurs.

Key words: Blubber distribution; Finless porpoise; Cetacean; Postmortem; Ultrasound imaging.

*Correspondence: E-mail: hao.yj@ihb.ac.cn; wangd@ihb.ac.cn