PLoS One 12(8) Art e0183053 - CSolazzo et al 300817.pdf (9.85 MB)

Molecular markers in keratins from Mysticeti whales for species identification of baleen in museum and archaeological collections

Download (9.85 MB)
journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-03, 10:24 authored by Caroline Solazzo, William Fitzhugh, Susan Kaplan, Charles Potter, Jolon Dyer
Baleen has been harvested by indigenous people for thousands of years, as well as collected by whalers as an additional product of commercial whaling in modern times. Baleen refers to the food-filtering system of Mysticeti whales; a full baleen rack consists of dozens of plates of a tough and flexible keratinous material that terminate in bristles. Due to its properties, baleen was a valuable raw material used in a wide range of artefacts, from implements to clothing. Baleen is not widely used today, however, analyses of this biomolecular tissue have the potential to contribute to conservation efforts, studies of genetic diversity and a better understanding of the exploitation and use of Mysticeti whales in past and recent times. Fortunately, baleen is present in abundance in museum natural history collections. However, it is often difficult or impossible to make a species identification of manufactured or old baleen. Here, we propose a new tool for biomolecular identification of baleen based on its main structural component alpha-keratin (the same protein that makes up hair and fingernails). With the exception of minke whales, alpha-keratin sequences are not yet known for baleen whales. We therefore used peptide mass fingerprinting to determine peptidic profiles in well documented baleen and evaluated the possibility of using this technique to differentiate species in baleen samples that are not adequately identified or are unidentified. We examined baleen from ten different species of whales and determined molecular markers for each species, including species-specific markers. In the case of the Bryde's whales, differences between specimens suggest distinct species or sub-species, consistent with the complex phylogeny of the species. Finally, the methodology was applied to 29 fragments of baleen excavated from archaeological sites in Labrador, Canada (representing 1500 years of whale use by prehistoric people), demonstrating a dominance of bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) in the archaeological assemblage and the successful application of the peptide mass fingerprinting technique to identify the species of whale in unidentified and partially degraded samples.


Rights statement

This is an open access article, free of all copyright, and may be freely reproduced, distributed, transmitted, modified, built upon, or otherwise used by anyone for any lawful purpose. The work is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 public domain dedication.


  • English

Does this contain Māori information or data?

  • No



Journal title





Solazzo, C., Fitzhugh, W., Kaplan, S., Potter, C., & Dyer, J. M. (2017). Molecular markers in keratins from Mysticeti whales for species identification of baleen in museum and archaeological collections. PLoS ONE, 12(8), e0183053. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0183053

Report number

FBP 78132

Usage metrics


    Ref. manager