MEPS 421:229-241 (2011)  -  doi:10.3354/meps08906

Predation on gray whales and prolonged feeding on submerged carcasses by transient killer whales at Unimak Island, Alaska

Lance G. Barrett-Lennard1,2,*, Craig O. Matkin3, John W. Durban4,5, Eva L. Saulitis3, David Ellifrit6

1Cetacean Research Program, Vancouver Aquarium, PO Box 3232, Vancouver, British Columbia V6B 3X8, Canada
2Zoology Department, University of British Columbia, #2370-6270 University Blvd., Vancouver, British Columbia V6B 1Z4, Canada
3North Gulf Oceanic Society, 3430 Main St., Suite B1, Homer, Alaska 99603, USA
4National Marine Mammal Laboratory, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 7600 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, Washington 98115, USA
5Protected Resources Division, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 8604 La Jolla Shores Dr., La Jolla, California 92037, USA
6Center for Whale Research, 355 Smugglers Cove, Friday Harbor, Washington 98250, USA

ABSTRACT: As apex predators, killer whales Orcinus orca are expected to strongly influence the structure of marine communities by impacting the abundance, distribution, behavior, and evolution of their prey. Empirical assessments of these impacts are difficult, however, because killer whales are sparsely distributed, highly mobile, and difficult to observe. We present a 4 yr time series of observations of foraging and feeding behavior of >150 transient killer whales that aggregate annually during the northbound migration of gray whales past Unimak Island, Alaska. Most predatory attacks were on gray whale Eschrichtius robustus calves or yearlings and were quickly abandoned if calves were aggressively defended by their mothers. Attacks were conducted by groups of 3 to 4 killer whales, which attempted to drown their prey. Gray whales generally tried to move into shallow water along the shoreline when attacked; if they succeeded in reaching depths of 3 m or less, attacks were abandoned. Kills occurred in waters from 15 to 75 m deep or were moved into such areas after death. After some hours of feeding, the carcasses were usually left, but were re-visited and fed on by killer whales over several days. Carcasses or pieces of prey that floated onshore were actively consumed by brown bears Ursus arctos, and carcasses on the bottom were fed on by sleeper sharks Somniosus pacificus, apparently increasing the local density of both species.


KEY WORDS: Foraging strategy · Predatory behavior · Prey catching · Scavenger · Killer whale · Gray whale · Brown bear · Sleeper shark


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Cite this article as: Barrett-Lennard LG, Matkin CO, Durban JW, Saulitis EL, Ellifrit D (2011) Predation on gray whales and prolonged feeding on submerged carcasses by transient killer whales at Unimak Island, Alaska. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 421:229-241

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