MEPS 335:207-216 (2007)  -  doi:10.3354/meps335207

Influence of thermal fronts on habitat selection by four rorqual whale species in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Thomas Doniol-Valcroze1,2,3,*, Dominique Berteaux3, Pierre Larouche4, Richard Sears2

1Department of Natural Resource Sciences, McGill University, 21111 Lakeshore Road, Ste.-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec H9X 3V9, Canada
2Mingan Island Cetacean Study, 285 Green, St. Lambert, Quebec J4P 1T3, Canada
3Canada Research Chair in Conservation of Northern Ecosystems and Centre d’etudes nordiques, Université du Québec à Rimouski, 300 allée des Ursulines, Rimouski, Quebec G5L 3A1, Canada
4Institut Maurice-Lamontagne, 850 route de la Mer, PO Box 1000, Mont-Joli, Quebec G5H 3Z4, Canada

ABSTRACT: Understanding the factors influencing habitat selection is critical to improving management and conservation plans for large whales. Many studies have linked the distribution of cetaceans to basic environmental features such as underwater topography and sea surface temperature (SST), but the mechanisms underlying these relationships are poorly understood. Dynamic mesoscale processes like thermal fronts are prime candidates to link physiographic factors to whale distribution because they increase biological productivity and aggregate prey. However, previous studies of large whales have found little evidence of such associations, possibly because they were not at the appropriate spatio-temporal scales. We quantified the relationship between SST fronts and the distribution of blue Balaenoptera musculus, finback B. physalus, humpback Megaptera novaeangliae and minke B. acutorostrata whales in the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence. We compared the distribution of 1094 whale sightings collected from boat surveys conducted in 1996 to 2000 to the locations of frontal areas determined from 61 satellite maps. The distributions of whales and thermal fronts were highly correlated (random resampling and Mantel tests of matrix similarity). Spatial distributions differed among species, probably reflecting differences in feeding strategies. Identification of surface fronts from satellite imagery thus effectively complemented field observations of whales. These findings significantly increase our understanding of habitat quality in rorqual whales, and encourage a greater use of dynamic environmental variables in future studies of whale habitat use.

KEY WORDS: Sea surface temperature · Thermal fronts · Blue whale · Finback whale · Humpback whale · Minke whale · Habitat selection · Gulf of St. Lawrence

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