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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 647:195-210 (2020)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13413

Variation in the diet of beluga whales in response to changes in prey availability: insights on changes in the Beaufort Sea ecosystem

Emily S. Choy1,2,*, Carolina Giraldo3, Bruno Rosenberg4, James D. Roth2, Ashley D. Ehrman4,5, Andrew Majewski4, Heidi Swanson5, Michael Power5, James D. Reist2,4, Lisa L. Loseto4,6

1Department of Natural Resource Sciences, McGill University, Ste. Anne de Bellevue, QC, H9X 3V9, Canada
2Department of Biological Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB, R3T 2N2, Canada
3Ifremer, Laboratoire Ressources Halieutiques, 150 Quai Gambetta BP 699, 62321 Boulogne sur mer, France
4Freshwater Institute, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Winnipeg, MB, R3T 2N6, Canada
5University of Waterloo, 200 University Ave., Waterloo, ON, N2L 3G1, Canada
6Department of Environment and Geography, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, R3T 2N2, Canada
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: The eastern Beaufort Sea (EBS) beluga whale Delphinapterus leucas population has experienced a 20 yr decline in inferred growth rates of individuals, which is hypothesized to have resulted from changes in prey availability. We used fatty acid signatures and stable isotope ratios to reconstruct the proportional contributions of 14 prey species to the diets of 178 beluga whales from 2011 to 2014. Prey estimates using quantitative fatty acid signature analysis suggest that EBS beluga whales primarily consume Arctic cod Boreogadus saida, a species highly sensitive to climate change. Prey estimates varied with year and sex and size class of the whales, with large males consuming the highest proportions of Arctic cod, and females consuming the highest proportions of capelin Mallotus villosus. Estimated proportional contributions of Arctic cod to beluga diet decreased from 2011 to 2014, coinciding with an increase in capelin. Belugas consumed the highest proportions of capelin and the lowest proportions of cod in 2014, the same year in which body condition indices were lowest in the whales. We hypothesize that changing conditions in the Beaufort Sea ecosystem may result in a decreased consumption of Arctic cod by belugas and increased consumption of capelin, which may result in a decline in condition. This may predominately affect females and juveniles since they consume the highest proportions of capelin; however, long-term monitoring is needed for confirmation. Understanding inter-annual variation in prey, and the longer-term nutritional implications of shifting from an Arctic cod- to a capelin-dominated diet should be a priority for monitoring EBS predators.


KEY WORDS: Delphinapterus leucas · Arctic change · Marine top predators · Fatty acid signatures · Stable isotope ratios · Marine mammals · Diet estimation · Fishes · Macroinvertebrates


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Cite this article as: Choy ES, Giraldo C, Rosenberg B, Roth JD and others (2020) Variation in the diet of beluga whales in response to changes in prey availability: insights on changes in the Beaufort Sea ecosystem. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 647:195-210. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13413

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