Evidence for dietary time series in layers of cetacean skin using stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios

Rapid Commun Mass Spectrom. 2018 Aug 30;32(16):1425-1438. doi: 10.1002/rcm.8168.


Rationale: Stable isotope analysis integrates diet information over a time period specific to the type of tissue sampled. For metabolically active skin of free-ranging cetaceans, cells are generated at the basal layer of the skin and migrate outward until they eventually slough off, suggesting potential for a dietary time series.

Methods: Skin samples from cetaceans were analyzed using continuous-flow elemental analyzer isotope ratio mass spectrometry. We used ANOVAs to compare the variability of δ13 C and δ15 N values within and among layers and columns ("cores") of the skin of a fin, humpback, and sperm whale. We then used mixed-effects models to analyze isotopic variability among layers of 28 sperm whale skin samples, over the course of a season and among years.

Results: We found layer to be a significant predictor of δ13 C values in the sperm whale's skin, and δ15 N values in the humpback whale's skin. There was no evidence for significant differences in δ15 N or δ13 C values among cores for any species. Mixed-effects models selected layer and day of the year as significant predictors of δ13 C and δ15 N values in sperm whale skin across individuals sampled during the summer months in the Gulf of Alaska.

Conclusions: These results suggest that skin samples from cetaceans may be subsampled to reflect diet during a narrower time period; specifically different layers of skin may contain a dietary time series. This underscores the importance of selecting an appropriate portion of skin to analyze based on the species and objectives of the study.