Nutritional status and prey energy density govern reproductive success in a small cetacean
A variety of mammals suppress reproduction when they experience poor physical condition or environmental harshness. In many marine mammal species, reproductive impairment has been correlated to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), the most frequently measured chemical pollutants, while the relative importance of other factors remains understudied. We investigate whether reproductively active females abandon investment in their foetus when conditions are poor, exemplified using an extensively studied cetacean species; the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena). Data on disease, fat and muscle mass and diet obtained from necropsies in The Netherlands were used as proxies of health and nutritional status and related to pregnancy and foetal growth. This was combined with published life history parameters for 16 other areas to correlate to parameters reflecting environmental condition: mean energy density of prey constituting diets (MEDD), cumulative human impact and PCB contamination. Maternal nutritional status had significant effects on foetal size and females in poor health had lower probabilities of being pregnant and generally did not sustain pregnancy throughout gestation. Pregnancy rates across the Northern Hemisphere were best explained by MEDD. We demonstrate the importance of having undisturbed access to prey with high energy densities in determining reproductive success and ultimately population size for small cetaceans.