Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratio profiling of sperm whale teeth reveals ontogenetic movements and trophic ecology

Sonia Mendes, Jason Newton, Robert J. Reid, Alain F. Zuur, Graham J. Pierce

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70 Citations (Scopus)


Teeth from male sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) stranded in the North-eastern Atlantic were used to determine whether chronological profiles of stable isotope ratios of C (delta C-13) and N (delta N-15) across dentine growth layers could be used to detect known ontogenetic benchmarks in movements and trophic ecology. Profiles showed a general decrease in delta C-13 (median = 1.91 parts per thousand) and an increase in delta N-15 (median = 2.42 parts per thousand.) with age. A marked decline in delta C-13 occurred for all 11 teeth around 9-10 years and again for six individuals around 20 years. After the early twenties the delta C-13 continued to decline with age for all teeth. These results are consistent with males segregating from natal groups in low latitudes with the onset of puberty between 4 and 15 years and gradually dispersing pole-ward into C-13-depleted temperate waters. Penetration into further depleted, productive high latitudes after the age of 20 might facilitate the spurt of accelerated growth rate observed around this age. Breeding migrations back to lower latitudes were not reflected in the delta C-13 profiles possibly due to being short compared to the time spent feeding in high latitudes. The timings of marked isotopic change in the delta N-15 profiles reflect those of the delta C-13 profiles, suggesting a link between dietary changes and movements. The observed increase in delta N-15 with age is likely to be caused by a trophic level increase as males grow in size, probably feeding on larger prey. An additional explanation could be that, in the higher latitudes of the North Atlantic, the main prey source is the high trophic level squid Gonatus fabricii. Also, the lower latitudes from where males disperse are depleted in basal N-15. Profiles of delta C-13 and delta N-15 in sperm whale teeth gathered from different regions, sexes, and periods in time, could provide a unique way to understand the ecology of this species across different oceans.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)605-615
Number of pages11
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2007


  • dentine
  • dietary history
  • migration
  • Physeter macrocephalus
  • stable isotopes
  • Physeter-Macrocephalus
  • community structure
  • delta-N-15 values
  • lipid extraction
  • marine mammals
  • bone-collagen
  • fish-tissues
  • diet
  • sea
  • Northern


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