Skip to content

Research at St Andrews

Evaluating morphometric and metabolic markers of body condition in a small cetacean, the harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena)

Research output: Research - peer-reviewArticle


Open Access permissions



Joanna L. Kershaw, Meredith Sherrill, Nicholas J. Davison, Andrew Brownlow, Ailsa J. Hall

School/Research organisations


Mammalian body condition is an important individual fitness metric as it affects both survival and reproductive success. The ability to accurately measure condition has key implications for predicting individual and population health, and therefore monitoring the population-level effects of changing environments. No consensus currently exists on the best measure to quantitatively estimate body condition in many species, including cetaceans. Here, two measures of body condition were investigated in the harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena). First, the most informative morphometric body condition index was identified. The mass/length2 ratio was the most appropriate morphometric index of 10 indices tested, explaining 50% of the variation in condition in stranded, male porpoises with different causes of death and across age classes (n = 291). Mass/length2 was then used to evaluate a second measure, blubber cortisol concentration, as a metabolic condition marker. Cortisol is the main glucocorticoid hormone involved in the regulation of lipolysis and overall energy balance in mammals, and concentrations could provide information on physiological state. Blubber cortisol concentrations did not significantly vary around the girth (n = 20), but there was significant vertical stratification through the blubber depth with highest concentrations in the innermost layer. Concentrations in the dorsal, outermost layer were representative of concentrations through the full blubber depth, showed variation by sex and age class, and were negatively correlated with mass/length2. Using this species as a model for live cetaceans from which standard morphometric measurements cannot be taken, but from which blubber biopsy samples are routinely collected, cortisol concentrations in the dorsal, outermost blubber layer could potentially be used as a biomarker of condition in free-ranging animals.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3494-3506
Number of pages13
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number10
Early online date9 Apr 2017
StatePublished - May 2017

    Research areas

  • Blubber biopsies, Body condition index, Cetaceans, Cortisol, Mass/length2

Discover related content
Find related publications, people, projects and more using interactive charts.

View graph of relations

Related by author

  1. Not just fat: investigating the proteome of cetacean blubber tissue

    Kershaw, J. L., Botting, C. H., Brownlow, A. & Hall, A. J. 2018 In : Conservation Physiology. 6, 1, 15 p.

    Research output: Research - peer-reviewArticle

  2. Exposure of harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) to Brucella in declining populations across Scotland

    Kershaw, J. L., Stubberfield, E. J., Foster, G., Brownlow, A., Hall, A. J. & Perrett, L. L. 20 Sep 2017 In : Diseases of Aquatic Organisms. 126, 1, p. 12-23

    Research output: Research - peer-reviewArticle

  3. Detection and effects of harmful algal toxins in Scottish harbour seals and potential links to population decline

    Jensen, S-K., Lacaze, J-P., Hermann, G., Kershaw, J., Brownlow, A., Turner, A. & Hall, A. J. Apr 2015 In : Toxicon. 97, p. 1-14 14 p.

    Research output: Research - peer-reviewArticle

  4. Overcoming the challenges of studying conservation physiology in large whales: a review of available methods

    Hunt, K. E., Moore, M. J., Rolland, R. M., Kellar, N. M., Hall, A. J., Kershaw, J., Raverty, S. A., Davis, C. E., Yeates, L. C., Fauquier, D. A., Rowles, T. K. & Kraus, S. D. 15 May 2013 In : Conservation Physiology. 1, 1, p. 1-24 24 p.

    Research output: Research - peer-reviewArticle

Related by journal

  1. Where eagles soar: fine-resolution tracking reveals the spatiotemporal use of differential soaring modes in a large raptor

    Murgatroyd, M., Photopoulou, T., Underhill, L., Bouten, W. & Amar, A. 11 Jun 2018 In : Ecology and Evolution. Early View, 12 p.

    Research output: Research - peer-reviewArticle

  2. Local weather and body condition influence habitat use and movements on land of molting female southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina)

    Chaise, L. L., Prinet, I., Toscani, C., Gallon, S. L., Paterson, W., McCafferty, D. J., Théry, M., Ancel, A. & Gilbert, C. 20 May 2018 In : Ecology and Evolution. Early View, 10 p.

    Research output: Research - peer-reviewArticle

  3. Intragroup and intragenomic conflict over chemical defense against predators

    Best, R., Ruxton, G. D. & Gardner, A. Mar 2018 In : Ecology and Evolution. 8, 6, p. 3322-3329 8 p.

    Research output: Research - peer-reviewArticle

  4. Search and foraging behaviors from movement data: a comparison of methods

    Bennison, A., Bearhop, S., Bodey, T. W., Votier, S. C., Grecian, W. J., Wakefield, E. D., Hamer, K. C. & Jessopp, M. Jan 2018 In : Ecology and Evolution. 8, 1, p. 13-24 12 p.

    Research output: Research - peer-reviewArticle

  5. Asymmetric paternal effect on offspring size linked to parent-of-origin expression of an insulin-like growth factor

    Saldivar Lemus, Y., Vielle-Calzada, J-P., Ritchie, M. G. & Macías Garcia, C. Jun 2017 In : Ecology and Evolution. 7, 12, p. 4465-4474 10 p.

    Research output: Research - peer-reviewArticle

Related by journal

  1. Ecology and Evolution (Journal)

    Hanson, N. N. (Reviewer)

    Activity: Publication peer-review and editorial workPeer review of manuscripts

  2. Ecology and Evolution (Journal)

    Shuker, D. M. (Member of editorial board)

    Activity: Publication peer-review and editorial workEditor of research journal

ID: 249242474