Effects of body condition on buoyancy in endangered North Atlantic right whales. Academic Article uri icon


  • Buoyancy is an important consideration for diving marine animals, resulting in specific ecologically relevant adaptations. Marine mammals use blubber as an energy reserve, but because this tissue is also positively buoyant, nutritional demands have the potential to cause considerable variation in buoyancy. North Atlantic right whales Eubalaena glacialis are known to be positively buoyant as a result of their blubber, and the thickness of this layer varies considerably, but the effect of this variation on buoyancy has not been explored. This study compared the duration and rate of ascending and descending glides, recorded with an archival tag, with blubber thickness, measured with an ultrasound device, in free-swimming right whales. Ascending whales with thicker blubber had shorter portions of active propulsion and longer passive glides than whales with thinner blubber, suggesting that blubber thickness influences buoyancy because the buoyant force is acting in the same direction as the animal's movement during this phase. Whales with thinner layers also used similar body angles and velocities when traveling to and from depth, while those with thicker layers used shallower ascent angles but achieved higher ascent velocities. Such alterations in body angle may help to reduce the cost of transport when swimming against the force of buoyancy in a state of augmented positive buoyancy, which represents a dynamic response to reduce the energetic consequences of physiological changes. These results have considerable implications for any diving marine animal during periods of nutritional stress, such as during seasonal migrations and annual variations in prey availability.

publication date

  • January 2014