News Release

Peptide mass fingerprinting can identify whale species based solely on their baleen

Peptide analysis identifies whale species from old baleen samples too degraded for microsocopy, DNA analysis

Peer-Reviewed Publication


Peptide Mass Fingerprinting Can Identify Whale Species Based Solely on Their Baleen

image: Baleen rack of specimen USNM 267999, an 11 m humpback whale (<i>Megaptera novaeangliae</i>) collected in Western Australia, 1938. view more 

Credit: Solazzo et al (2017)

Peptide mass fingerprinting accurately identified 10 species of whales from their baleen alone, according to a study published August 30, 2017 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Caroline Solazzo from Smithsonian Institution, US, and colleagues.

Baleen whales are found worldwide, and have been traditionally hunted by indigenous people in the Arctic and North Pacific for more than 4,000 years. Prehistorically, baleen was used to make artefacts from clothing to fishing and hunting implements. While DNA analysis of tissues from museum specimens is common, this technique is often difficult or impossible on old baleen.

Solazzo and colleagues assessed whether peptide mass fingerprinting could identify species from baleen, which like hair and fingernails is made mainly from the protein alpha-keratin.

The researchers developed a peptide mass fingerprint for each baleen whale species, using 27 baleen samples from 10 known species of baleen whales to develop the technique. They then tested the technique on 29 archaeological baleen samples of unidentified species from sites in Labrador, Canada, spanning 1,500 years of aboriginal whale use.

The researchers found that they could calibrate the peptide mass fingerprint from known whale species, and use that technique to identify whale species from their baleen. In addition, they found that bowhead whales dominated at the archaeological sites. Identifying whales from the baleen used in ancient artefacts can help archaeologists learn which species prehistoric groups hunted as well as how the resources these marine mammals provided were used. Other applications of peptide mass fingerprinting include wildlife forensics and improving our understanding of how historical populations used baleen and improve present-day conservation efforts.

"Baleen, a material used in a wide range of objects in the past, can now be correctly identified to species," says Solazzo. "This work has again showed the efficiency and importance of peptide mass fingerprinting as an analytical tool for the study of museum artefacts made of proteins."


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Citation: Solazzo C, Fitzhugh W, Kaplan S, Potter C, Dyer JM (2017) Molecular markers in keratins from Mysticeti whales for species identification of baleen in museum and archaeological collections. PLoS ONE 12(8): e0183053.

Funding: The analytical work was supported by a Burch Fellowship in Theoretical Medicine and Affiliated Sciences (Smithsonian Institution). Caroline Solazzo-2014 recipient: The funder provided support in the form of salaries for authors [CS], but did not have any additional role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The specific roles of these authors are articulated in the 'author contributions' section. Jolon Dyer employed at the company AgResearch Ltd served as adviser and contributed to the preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist. Jolon Dyer employed at the company AgResearch Ltd served as adviser and contributed to the preparation of the manuscript. His affiliation does not alter our adherence to PLOS ONE policies on sharing data and materials.

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