Hematology and Plasma Chemistry as Indicators of Health and Ecological Status In Beluga Whales, Delphinapterus Leucas
The capture of beluga whales, Delphinapterus leucas, for instrumentation or tagging afforded the opportunity to collect blood, which was analyzed to evaluate the animals' health and gain information on basic physiological systems. Here, we report on hematological and plasma chemical constituents in samples obtained from 183 belugas, 55 of which were handled during attempts to apply tracking instruments. The other 128 samples were either drawn from live belugas captured for exhibit in zoological parks or research or obtained from the fresh carcasses of whales taken by Inuit hunters. The data span a 15-year period beginning in 1983 and represent various beluga stocks in the Canadian Arctic. The majority of the specimens were collected during the summer or estuarine phase of the belugas' annual cycle. Comparisons by age group, sex, stock, season, and year revealed significant differences in most of the cellular and chemical constituents examined. These results demonstrate some of the variability that might be encountered when examining a "random" selection of belugas at a particular location and time. Immature-sized whales had higher leucocyte counts, electrolyte concentrations, enzyme activity, total protein, albumin, hemoglobin, and some metabolites than older animals. Sex alone was associated with few hematological and plasma chemical differences. Seasonal variation in thyroid hormone activity was linked to marked environmental changes associated with the transition from cold oceanic waters to relatively warm estuaries. Two belugas recaptured 19 and 24 days after instrumentation showed changes in leucocyte counts, hematocrit, and a variety of plasma chemical constituents, some of which indicate inflammation and a likely physiological response to handling and tagging stresses.