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Stratification, Composition, and Function of Marine Mammal Blubber: The Ecology of Fatty Acids in Marine Mammals

1Faculty of Biosciences, University of Joensuu, P.O. Box 111, FI‐80101 Joensuu, Finland; 2Norwegian Polar Institute, N‐9296 Tromsø, Norway; 3Department of Chemistry, University of Bergen, N‐5007 Bergen, Norway; 4Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Helsinki, P.O. Box 65, FI‐00014, Helsinki, Finland

This study of vertical fatty acid profiles, based on analysis of 58 fatty acids sampled at 3‐mm intervals throughout the blubber column of a model marine mammal, the ringed seal (Pusa hispida), revealed three chemically distinct layers. The average depths of the outer and inner layers were quite consistent (∼1.5 and ∼1 cm, respectively). Consequently, the middle layer varied greatly in thickness, from being virtually absent in the thinnest animals to 2.5 cm thick in the fattest. The relative consistencies of the thickness and composition of the layers as well as the nature of the fatty acids making up each layer support the generally assumed function of the various layers: (1) the outer layer is primarily structural and thermoregulatory, (2) the inner layer is metabolically active with a fatty acid composition that is strongly affected by recent/ongoing lipid mobilization/deposition, and (3) the middle layer is a storage site that contracts and expands with food availability/consumption. The remarkable dynamics of the middle layer along with the discrete pattern of stratification found in the vertical fatty acid profiles have important implications for methodological sampling design for studies of foraging ecology and toxicology based on analyses of blubber of marine mammals.