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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 316:185-199 (2006)  -  doi:10.3354/meps316185

Selective foraging by fish-eating killer whales Orcinus orca in British Columbia

John K. B. Ford*, Graeme M. Ellis

Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Pacific Biological Station, 3190 Hammond Bay Road, Nanaimo, British Columbia V9T 6N7, Canada

ABSTRACT: As the apex non-human marine predator, the killer whale Orcinus orca feeds on a wide diversity of marine fauna. Different ecotypic forms of the species, which often exist in sympatry, may have distinct foraging specialisations. One form found in coastal waters of the temperate NE Pacific Ocean, known as the ‘resident’ ecotype, feeds predominantly on salmonid prey. An earlier study that used opportunistic collection of prey remains from kill sites as an indicator of predation rates suggested that resident killer whales may forage selectively for chinook salmon Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, the largest but one of the least abundant Pacific salmon species. Potential biases in the prey fragment sampling technique, however, made the validity of this finding uncertain. We undertook field studies of foraging behaviour of resident killer whales to resolve this uncertainty and to examine potential variation in prey selection by season, geographical area, group membership and prey availability. Foraging by resident killer whales was found to frequently involve sharing by 2 or more whales. Prey fragments left at kill sites resulted mostly from handling and breaking up of prey for sharing, and all species and sizes of salmonids were shared. Resident killer whale groups in all parts of the study area foraged selectively for chinook salmon, probably because of the species’ large size, high lipid content, and year-round availability in the whales’ range. Chum salmon Oncorhynchus keta, the second largest salmonid, were also taken when available, but smaller sockeye O. nerka and pink O. gorbuscha salmon were not significant prey despite far greater seasonal abundance. Strong selectivity for chinook salmon by resident killer whales probably has a significant influence on foraging tactics and seasonal movements, and also may have important implications for the conservation and management of both predator and prey.

KEY WORDS: Prey choice · Food sharing · Foraging specialisation · Salmonid predation

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