Lipid class and depth-specific thermal properties in the blubber of the short-finned pilot whale and the pygmy sperm whale

J Exp Biol. 2012 Dec 15;215(Pt 24):4330-9. doi: 10.1242/jeb.071530. Epub 2012 Sep 12.


Blubber, the specialized hypodermis of cetaceans, provides thermal insulation through the quantity and quality of lipids it contains. Quality refers to percent lipid content; however, not all lipids are the same. Certain deep-diving cetacean groups possess blubber with lipids - wax esters (WE) - that are not typically found in mammals, and the insulative quality of 'waxy' blubber is unknown. Our study explored the influence of lipid storage class - specifically WE in pygmy sperm whales (Kogia breviceps; N=7) and typical mammalian triacylglycerols in short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus; N=7) - on blubber's thermal properties. Although the blubber of both species had similar total lipid contents, the thermal conductivity of G. macrorhynchus blubber (0.20±0.01 W m(-1) °C(-1)) was significantly higher than that of K. breviceps (0.15±0.01 W m(-1) °C(-1); P=0.0006). These results suggest that lipid class significantly influences the ability of blubber to resist heat flow. In addition, because the lipid content of blubber is known to be stratified, we measured its depth-specific thermal conductivities. In K. breviceps blubber, the depth-specific conductivity values tended to vary inversely with lipid content. In contrast, G. macrorhynchus blubber displayed unexpected depth-specific relationships between lipid content and conductivity, which suggests that temperature-dependent effects, such as melting, may be occurring. Differences in heat flux measurements across the depth of the blubber samples provide evidence that both species are capable of storing heat in their blubber. The function of blubber as an insulator is complex and may rely upon its lipid class, stratified composition and dynamic heat storage capabilities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Hot Temperature
  • Lipid Metabolism
  • Lipids / analysis*
  • Male
  • Thermal Conductivity
  • Triglycerides / analysis
  • Triglycerides / metabolism
  • Whales / metabolism*


  • Lipids
  • Triglycerides