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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 607:237-250 (2018)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps12789

Hierarchical foraging movement of humpback whales relative to the structure of their prey

Theresa Kirchner1,2,*, David N. Wiley3, Elliott L. Hazen4, Susan E. Parks5, Leigh G. Torres1, Ari S. Friedlaender1,6

1Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Marine Mammal Institute, Hatfield Marine Science Center, Oregon State University, Newport, Oregon 97365, USA
2Center for Coastal Studies, Provincetown, Massachusetts 02657, USA
3Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA National Ocean Service, Scituate, Massachusetts 02066, USA
4NOAA SWFSC Environmental Research Division, Monterey, California 93940, USA
5Department of Biology, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York 13244, USA
6Institute of Marine Sciences, University of California Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, California 95060, USA
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Movement within and between prey patches can influence the fitness of a predator, and understanding such foraging decisions is an important topic in ecology. Most research has found sustained foraging in dense prey patches but has focused on the movement of raptorial predators that feed on single prey items, or suspension-feeders foraging on comparatively immobile zooplankton. The goal of this study was to investigate the fine-scale movement of a suspension-feeding marine vertebrate species while foraging for mobile prey. Using animal-borne tags and surface observations, we analyzed the movement of foraging humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae within and among acoustically detected patches of sand lance Ammodytes spp. in the water column in the southern Gulf of Maine, USA. Analyzing data from 9 whales tagged between 2008 and 2012, we found hierarchical whale foraging movements that paralleled a complex, hierarchically structured prey landscape. For 7 out of 9 whales, feeding bout scales corresponded to prey patch scales. For 6 out of 9 whales, movement between sequential feeding events was not significantly different from distances between neighboring prey schools. Targeting neighboring schools during sequential feeding events, as opposed to sustained foraging in profitable patches, may increase foraging success in marine suspension-feeders targeting mobile prey, which confirms findings from many other marine predator taxa feeding on mobile prey species. Our study presents novel evidence for the high behavioral plasticity of an intermittent suspension-feeder targeting mobile prey, adapting its movement to the behavior of its prey and the structure of its prey field.


KEY WORDS: Hierarchical analyses · Feeding ecology · Predator-prey interaction · Patchiness · Suspension-feeding · Megaptera novaeangliae · Sand lance


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Cite this article as: Kirchner T, Wiley DN, Hazen EL, Parks SE, Torres LG, Friedlaender AS (2018) Hierarchical foraging movement of humpback whales relative to the structure of their prey. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 607:237-250. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps12789

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