Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Ecology and BioMed Central.

Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Long-term feeding ecology and habitat use in harbour porpoises Phocoena phocoena from Scandinavian waters inferred from trace elements and stable isotopes

Michaël C Fontaine12*, Krystal A Tolley34, Ursula Siebert5, Sylvie Gobert1, Gilles Lepoint1, Jean-Marie Bouquegneau1 and Krishna Das1

Author Affiliations

1 MARE Centre – Laboratory for Oceanology, University of Liège, B6c, Liège Sart Tilman B-4000, Belgium

2 CBGP-INRA (Centre de Biologie et de Gestion des Populations). Campus international de Baillarguet CS 30016, 34988 Montferrier-sur-Lez cedex, France

3 Molecular Ecology and Evolution Program, Kirstenbosch Research Centre, South African National Biodiversity Institute, P/Bag X7, Claremont 7735, South Africa

4 Institute of Marine Research, PO Box 1870, Nordnes, 5024, Bergen, Norway

5 Forschungs- und Technologie Zentrum Westküste, Universität Kiel, Werfstraße 6, 25761 Büsum, Germany

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Ecology 2007, 7:1  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-7-1

Published: 17 January 2007



We investigated the feeding ecology and habitat use of 32 harbour porpoises by-caught in 4 localities along the Scandinavian coast from the North Sea to the Barents Sea using time-integrative markers: stable isotopes (δ13C, δ15N) and trace elements (Zn, Cu, Fe, Se, total Hg and Cd), in relation to habitat characteristics (bathymetry) and geographic position (latitude).


Among the trace elements analysed, only Cd, with an oceanic specific food origin, was found to be useful as an ecological tracer. All other trace elements studied were not useful, most likely because of physiological regulation and/or few specific sources in the food web. The δ13C, δ15N signatures and Cd levels were highly correlated with each other, as well as with local bathymetry and geographic position (latitude). Variation in the isotopic ratios indicated a shift in harbour porpoise's feeding habits from pelagic prey species in deep northern waters to more coastal and/or demersal prey in the relatively shallow North Sea and Skagerrak waters. This result is consistent with stomach content analyses found in the literature. This shift was associated with a northward Cd-enrichment which provides further support to the Cd 'anomaly' previously reported in polar waters and suggests that porpoises in deep northern waters include Cd-contaminated prey in their diet, such as oceanic cephalopods.


As stable isotopes and Cd provide information in the medium and the long term respectively, the spatial variation found, shows that harbour porpoises experience different ecological regimes during the year along the Scandinavian coasts, adapting their feeding habits to local oceanographic conditions, without performing extensive migration.