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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 663:209-222 (2021)  -  DOI:

Age-specific behavior and habitat use in humpback whales: implications for vessel strike

Julia E. F. Stepanuk1,*, Eleanor I. Heywood2, Jennifer F. Lopez2, Robert A. DiGiovanni Jr.3, Lesley H. Thorne1,2

1Department of Ecology and Evolution, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY 11794, USA
2School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY 11794, USA
3Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, Hampton Bays, NY 11946, USA
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Vessel strikes are a major threat impacting large whales globally. Juvenile whales often represent a high proportion of lethal vessel strikes, but few studies have investigated whether juvenile whales show different behaviors that might influence their risk of vessel strike. We evaluated how variability in habitat use and foraging behavior by age class influences the risk of vessel strike for humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae in the New York Bight (NYB), a highly urbanized region with frequent vessel strikes. We used data from unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) surveys to compare the habitat use and foraging behavior of adult and juvenile humpback whales and compared length measurements of foraging individuals with those confirmed to have been killed by vessel strikes. Further, using Automatic Information System data, we analyzed the speed and density of vessel traffic relative to humpback whale habitat use. The vast majority (93%) of humpback whales confirmed to have been struck by vessels in the NYB were juveniles. Whales foraging in nearshore waters were exclusively juveniles that were surface feeding, while both juveniles and adults foraged cooperatively in offshore waters. Passenger vessel density and speed were highest in nearshore waters. The habitat use and surface foraging behavior of juvenile humpback whales may make them particularly vulnerable to vessel strikes in nearshore waters, and passenger vessels in these waters may be a risk factor. This work highlights the importance of understanding age-specific differences in habitat use to better understand and mitigate the risk of anthropogenic threats to large whales.

KEY WORDS: Large whale · Vessel strike · Anthropogenic impacts · Habitat use · Foraging behavior · Humpback whale

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Cite this article as: Stepanuk JEF, Heywood EI, Lopez JF, DiGiovanni RA Jr, Thorne LH (2021) Age-specific behavior and habitat use in humpback whales: implications for vessel strike. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 663:209-222.

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