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MEPS prepress abstract   -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13492

Putting prey into the picture: adding prey data dramatically improves species distribution models for bottlenose dolphins in Doubtful Sound, New Zealand

S. Bennington*, W. Rayment, S. Dawson

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Species distribution models (SDMs) often rely on abiotic variables as proxies for biotic relationships. This means that important biotic relationships may be missed, creating ambiguity in our understanding of the drivers of habitat use. These problems are especially relevant for populations of predators, as their habitat use is likely to be strongly influenced by the distribution of their prey. We investigated habitat use of a population of a top predator, bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus, in Doubtful Sound, New Zealand, using generalised additive models, and compared the results of models with and without biotic predictor variables. We found that although habitat use by bottlenose dolphins was significantly correlated with abiotic variables that likely describe foraging areas, introduction of biotic variables describing potential prey almost doubled the deviance explained, from 19.8% to 39.1%. Biotic variables were the most important of the predictors used, and indicated that the dolphins showed a preference for areas with a high abundance of the reef fish, girdled wrasse Notolabrus cinctus. For the dolphins of Doubtful Sound these results show the importance of prey distribution in driving habitat use. On a broader scale, these results show that making an effort to include true biotic descriptors in SDMs, can improve model performance, resulting in better understanding of the drivers of distribution of marine predators.