Comparative analysis of steroids in cyclic and pregnant killer whales, beluga whales and bottlenose dolphins by liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry

Erin L. Legacki, Todd R. Robeck, Karen J. Steinman, Alan J Conley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


There exists a surprising diversity in the physiology and endocrinology of pregnancy among mammals in both the source (luteal/placental) and metabolism of progesterone. To evaluate the possible diversity of steroid metabolism within toothed cetaceans, we investigated 5α-reduced progesterone metabolites and androgens in cyclic (luteal phase) and pregnant captive killer whales, belugas and bottlenose dolphins (n = 5/species) bled longitudinally in early, mid- and late pregnancy (0.16, 0.50 and 0.85 fractions of 535, 464 and 380 gestation days, respectively). Mid-luteal samples were also collected. Serum was analyzed by liquid chromatography tandem-mass spectrometry as previously validated for (among others) progesterone, 20αOH-progesterone (20αOHP), 5α-dihydroprogesterone (DHP), several additional 5α-reduced metabolites and androgens (dehydroepiandrosterone, androstenedione and testosterone). The predominant mid-luteal pregnanes were: progesterone, belugas; progesterone and 20αOHP, dolphins; allopregnanolone (3α-DHP) and progesterone, killer whales. Progesterone was 2-4-fold higher in early pregnancy than mid-luteal samples but decreased thereafter. The predominant metabolite, 3β,20α-dihydroprogesterone (3β,20α-DHP; 40–80 ng/ml) was higher in mid- and late-than early gestation in all 3 species. Concentrations of 20αOHP and 3β,20α-DHP were similar at mid-gestation but 20αOHP declined in late-gestation in killer whales, and 20αOHP was lower than 3β,20α-DHP in belugas and dolphins throughout gestation. Other 5α-reduced metabolites, DHP, 3α-DHP and 20α-DHP, were far lower throughout pregnancy (<10 ng/ml). DHP and 3α-DHP decreased from early to mid-gestation in belugas, but changed little in killer whales and dolphins. These data suggest that progesterone metabolism is relatively conserved among these cetacean species. As in equine pregnancies, 3β,20α-DHP is the major metabolite, increasing at the expense of progesterone as pregnancy progresses. Androstenedione and testosterone also increased detectably in mid- to late-gestation in these species. The tissue source remains unknown, but progesterone metabolism during gestation in these cetaceans is similar to horses and, together with androgens, may be reliable biomarkers of pregnancy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number113273
JournalGeneral and Comparative Endocrinology
StatePublished - Jan 1 2020


  • Androgens
  • Cetacean
  • Non-pregnant
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnanes
  • Steroids

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Endocrinology


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