Killer whales (Orcinus orca) are large predators that occupy the top trophic position in the world's oceans and as such may have important roles in marine ecosystem dynamics. Although the possible top-down effects of killer whale predation on populations of their prey have received much recent attention, little is known of how the abundance of these predators may be limited by bottom-up processes. Here we show, using 25 years of demographic data from two populations of fish-eating killer whales in the northeastern Pacific Ocean, that population trends are driven largely by changes in survival, and that survival rates are strongly correlated with the availability of their principal prey species, Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha). Our results suggest that, although these killer whales may consume a variety of fish species, they are highly specialized and dependent on this single salmonid species to an extent that it is a limiting factor in their population dynamics. Other ecologically specialized killer whale populations may be similarly constrained to a narrow range of prey species by culturally inherited foraging strategies, and thus are limited in their ability to adapt rapidly to changing prey availability.
killer whale; Orcinus orca; predation
In cetaceans’ communities, interactions between individuals of different species are often observed in the wild. Yet, due to methodological and technical challenges very little is known about the mediation of these interactions and their effect on cetaceans’ behavior. Killer whales (Orcinus orca) are a highly vocal species and can be both food competitors and potential predators of many other cetaceans. Thus, the interception of their vocalizations by unintended cetacean receivers may be particularly important in mediating interspecific interactions. To address this hypothesis, we conducted playbacks of killer whale vocalizations recorded during herring-feeding activity to free-ranging long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas). Using a multi-sensor tag, we were able to track the whales and to monitor changes of their movements and social behavior in response to the playbacks. We demonstrated that the playback of killer whale sounds to pilot whales induced a clear increase in group size and a strong attraction of the animals towards the sound source. These findings provide the first experimental evidence that the interception of heterospecific vocalizations can mediate interactions between different cetacean species in previously unrecognized ways.
Managing endangered species often involves evaluating the relative impacts of multiple anthropogenic and ecological pressures. This challenge is particularly formidable for cetaceans, which spend the majority of their time underwater. Noninvasive physiological approaches can be especially informative in this regard. We used a combination of fecal thyroid (T3) and glucocorticoid (GC) hormone measures to assess two threats influencing the endangered southern resident killer whales (SRKW; Orcinus orca) that frequent the inland waters of British Columbia, Canada and Washington, U.S.A. Glucocorticoids increase in response to nutritional and psychological stress, whereas thyroid hormone declines in response to nutritional stress but is unaffected by psychological stress. The inadequate prey hypothesis argues that the killer whales have become prey limited due to reductions of their dominant prey, Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha). The vessel impact hypothesis argues that high numbers of vessels in close proximity to the whales cause disturbance via psychological stress and/or impaired foraging ability. The GC and T3 measures supported the inadequate prey hypothesis. In particular, GC concentrations were negatively correlated with short-term changes in prey availability. Whereas, T3 concentrations varied by date and year in a manner that corresponded with more long-term prey availability. Physiological correlations with prey overshadowed any impacts of vessels since GCs were lowest during the peak in vessel abundance, which also coincided with the peak in salmon availability. Our results suggest that identification and recovery of strategic salmon populations in the SRKW diet are important to effectively promote SRKW recovery.
Albatrosses fly many hundreds of kilometers across the open ocean to find and feed upon their prey. Despite the growing number of studies concerning their foraging behaviour, relatively little is known about how albatrosses actually locate their prey. Here, we present our results from the first deployments of a combined animal-borne camera and depth data logger on free-ranging black-browed albatrosses (Thalassarche melanophrys). The still images recorded from these cameras showed that some albatrosses actively followed a killer whale (Orcinus orca), possibly to feed on food scraps left by this diving predator. The camera images together with the depth profiles showed that the birds dived only occasionally, but that they actively dived when other birds or the killer whale were present. This association with diving predators or other birds may partially explain how albatrosses find their prey more efficiently in the apparently ‘featureless’ ocean, with a minimal requirement for energetically costly diving or landing activities.
Ecosystem-based management (EBM) of marine resources attempts to conserve interacting species. In contrast to single-species fisheries management, EBM aims to identify and resolve conflicting objectives for different species. Such a conflict may be emerging in the northeastern Pacific for southern resident killer whales (Orcinus orca) and their primary prey, Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha). Both species have at-risk conservation status and transboundary (Canada–US) ranges. We modeled individual killer whale prey requirements from feeding and growth records of captive killer whales and morphometric data from historic live-capture fishery and whaling records worldwide. The models, combined with caloric value of salmon, and demographic and diet data for wild killer whales, allow us to predict salmon quantities needed to maintain and recover this killer whale population, which numbered 87 individuals in 2009. Our analyses provide new information on cost of lactation and new parameter estimates for other killer whale populations globally. Prey requirements of southern resident killer whales are difficult to reconcile with fisheries and conservation objectives for Chinook salmon, because the number of fish required is large relative to annual returns and fishery catches. For instance, a U.S. recovery goal (2.3% annual population growth of killer whales over 28 years) implies a 75% increase in energetic requirements. Reducing salmon fisheries may serve as a temporary mitigation measure to allow time for management actions to improve salmon productivity to take effect. As ecosystem-based fishery management becomes more prevalent, trade-offs between conservation objectives for predators and prey will become increasingly necessary. Our approach offers scenarios to compare relative influence of various sources of uncertainty on the resulting consumption estimates to prioritise future research efforts, and a general approach for assessing the extent of conflict between conservation objectives for threatened or protected wildlife where the interaction between affected species can be quantified.
Killer whales (Orcinus orca) are the most widely distributed marine mammals and have radiated to occupy a range of ecological niches. Disparate sympatric types are found in the North Atlantic, Antarctic and North Pacific oceans, however, little is known about the underlying mechanisms driving divergence. Previous phylogeographic analysis using complete mitogenomes yielded a bifurcating tree of clades corresponding to described ecotypes. However, there was low support at two nodes at which two Pacific and two Atlantic clades diverged. Here we apply further phylogenetic and coalescent analyses to partitioned mitochondrial genome sequences to better resolve the pattern of past radiations in this species. Our phylogenetic reconstructions indicate that in the North Pacific, sympatry between the maternal lineages that make up each ecotype arises from secondary contact. Both the phylogenetic reconstructions and a clinal decrease in diversity suggest a North Pacific to North Atlantic founding event, and the later return of killer whales to the North Pacific. Therefore, ecological divergence could have occurred during the allopatric phase through drift or selection and/or may have either commenced or have been consolidated upon secondary contact due to resource competition. The estimated timing of bidirectional migration between the North Pacific and North Atlantic coincided with the previous inter-glacial when the leakage of fauna from the Indo-Pacific into the Atlantic via the Agulhas current was particularly vigorous.
Killer whales (Orcinus orca) are important predators in high latitudes, where their ecological impact is mediated through their movements. We used satellite telemetry to provide the first evidence of migration for killer whales, characterized by fast (more than 12 km h−1, 6.5 knots) and direct movements away from Antarctic waters by six of 12 type B killer whales tagged when foraging near the Antarctic Peninsula, including all tags transmitting for more than three weeks. Tags on five of these whales revealed consistent movements to subtropical waters (30–37° S) off Uruguay and Brazil, in surface water temperatures ranging from −1.9°C to 24.2°C; one 109 day track documented a non-stop round trip of almost 9400 km (5075 nmi) in just 42 days. Although whales travelled slower in the warmest waters, there was no obvious interruption in swim speed or direction to indicate calving or prolonged feeding. Furthermore, these movements were aseasonal, initiating over 80 days between February and April; one whale returned to within 40 km of the tagging site at the onset of the austral winter in June. We suggest that these movements may represent periodic maintenance migrations, with warmer waters allowing skin regeneration without the high cost of heat loss: a physiological constraint that may also affect other whales.
migration; killer whales; Antarctica
The mammalian gastric and oral mucosa may be colonized by mixed Helicobacter and Campylobacter species, respectively, in individual animals. To better characterize the presence and distribution of Helicobacter and Campylobacter among marine mammals, we used PCR and 16S rDNA sequence analysis to examine gastric and oral samples from ten dolphins (Tursiops gephyreus), one killer whale (Orcinus orca), one false killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens), and three wild La Plata river dolphins (Pontoporia blainvillei). Helicobacter spp. DNA was widely distributed in gastric and oral samples from both captive and wild cetaceans. Phylogenetic analysis demonstrated two Helicobacter sequence clusters, one closely related to H. cetorum, a species isolated from dolphins and whales in North America. The second related cluster was to sequences obtained from dolphins in Australia and to gastric non-Helicobacter pylori helicobacters, and may represent a novel taxonomic group. Dental plaque sequences from four dolphins formed a third cluster within the Campylobacter genus that likely represents a novel species isolated from marine mammals. Identification of identical Helicobacter spp. DNA sequences from dental plaque, saliva and gastric fluids from the same hosts, suggests that the oral cavity may be involved in transmission. These results demonstrate that Helicobacter and Campylobacter species are commonly distributed in marine mammals, and identify taxonomic clusters that may represent novel species.
Helicobacter; Campylobacter; marine mammals; cetaceans; gastritis
Killer whales (Orcinus orca) frequently scavenged from the carcasses produced by whalers. This practice became especially prominent with large-scale mechanical whaling in the twentieth century, which provided temporally and spatially clustered floating carcasses associated with loud acoustic signals. The carcasses were often of species of large whale preferred by killer whales but that normally sink beyond their diving range. In the middle years of the twentieth century floating whaled carcasses were much more abundant than those resulting from natural mortality of whales, and we propose that scavenging killer whales multiplied through diet shifts and reproduction. During the 1970s the numbers of available carcasses fell dramatically with the cessation of most whaling (in contrast to a reasonably stable abundance of living whales), and the scavenging killer whales needed an alternative source of nutrition. Diet shifts may have triggered declines in other prey species, potentially affecting ecosystems, as well as increasing direct predation on living whales.
scavenging; whaling; killer whale; ecosystem
Mitochondria produce up to 95 per cent of the eukaryotic cell's energy. The coding genes of the mitochondrial DNA may therefore evolve under selection owing to metabolic requirements. The killer whale, Orcinus orca, is polymorphic, has a global distribution and occupies a range of ecological niches. It is therefore a suitable organism for testing this hypothesis. We compared a global dataset of the complete mitochondrial genomes of 139 individuals for amino acid changes that were associated with radical physico-chemical property changes and were influenced by positive selection. Two such selected non-synonymous amino acid changes were found; one in each of two ecotypes that inhabit the Antarctic pack ice. Both substitutions were associated with changes in local polarity, increased steric constraints and α-helical tendencies that could influence overall metabolic performance, suggesting a functional change.
mitochondria; genome; selection
Recently, three visually distinct forms of killer whales (Orcinus orca) were described from Antarctic waters and designated as types A, B and C. Based on consistent differences in prey selection and habitat preferences, morphological divergence and apparent lack of interbreeding among these broadly sympatric forms, it was suggested that they may represent separate species. To evaluate this hypothesis, we compared complete sequences of the mitochondrial control region from 81 Antarctic killer whale samples, including 9 type A, 18 type B, 47 type C and 7 type-undetermined individuals. We found three fixed differences that separated type A from B and C, and a single fixed difference that separated type C from A and B. These results are consistent with reproductive isolation among the different forms, although caution is needed in drawing further conclusions. Despite dramatic differences in morphology and ecology, the relatively low levels of sequence divergence in Antarctic killer whales indicate that these evolutionary changes occurred relatively rapidly and recently.
Antarctica; killer whale; Orcinus orca; phylogenetics
Anthropogenic underwater sound in the environment might potentially affect the behavior of marine mammals enough to have an impact on their reproduction and survival. Diving behavior of four killer whales (Orcinus orca), seven long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas), and four sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) was studied during controlled exposures to naval sonar [low frequency active sonar (LFAS): 1–2 kHz and mid frequency active sonar (MFAS): 6–7 kHz] during three field seasons (2006–2009). Diving behavior was monitored before, during and after sonar exposure using an archival tag placed on the animal with suction cups. The tag recorded the animal's vertical movement, and additional data on horizontal movement and vocalizations were used to determine behavioral modes. Killer whales that were conducting deep dives at sonar onset changed abruptly to shallow diving (ShD) during LFAS, while killer whales conducting deep dives at the onset of MFAS did not alter dive mode. When in ShD mode at sonar onset, killer whales did not change their diving behavior. Pilot and sperm whales performed normal deep dives (NDD) during MFAS exposure. During LFAS exposures, long-finned pilot whales mostly performed fewer deep dives and some sperm whales performed shallower and shorter dives. Acoustic recording data presented previously indicates that deep diving (DD) is associated with feeding. Therefore, the observed changes in dive behavior of the three species could potentially reduce the foraging efficiency of the affected animals.
marine mammal; dive; sonar
Before man hunted the large baleen whales to near extinction by the end of the nineteenth century, Arctic ecosystems were strongly influenced by these large predators. Their main prey were zooplankton, among which the calanoid copepod species of the genus Calanus, long considered key elements of polar marine ecosystems, are particularly abundant. These herbivorous zooplankters display a range of adaptations to the highly seasonal environments of the polar oceans, most notably extensive energy reserves and seasonal migrations to deep waters where the non-feeding season is spent in diapause. Classical work in marine ecology has suggested that slow growth, long lifespan and large body size in zooplankton are specific adaptations to life in cold waters with short and unpredictable feeding seasons. Here, we challenge this understanding and, by using an analogy from the evolutionary and contemporary history of the avocado, argue that predation pressure by the now nearly extinct baleen whales was an important driving force in the evolution of life history diversity in the Arctic Calanus complex.
Arctic; Calanus; evolution; baleen whales; life history strategy; predation pressure; avocado analogy
Seamounts may influence the distribution of marine mammals through a combination of increased ocean mixing, enhanced local productivity and greater prey availability. To study the effects of seamounts on the presence and acoustic behaviour of cetaceans, we deployed a high-frequency acoustic recording package on the summit of Cross Seamount during April through October 2005. The most frequently detected cetacean vocalizations were echolocation sounds similar to those produced by ziphiid and mesoplodont beaked whales together with buzz-type signals consistent with prey-capture attempts. Beaked whale signals occurred almost entirely at night throughout the six-month deployment. Measurements of prey presence with a Simrad EK-60 fisheries acoustics echo sounder indicate that Cross Seamount may enhance local productivity in near-surface waters. Concentrations of micronekton were aggregated over the seamount in near-surface waters at night, and dense concentrations of nekton were detected across the surface of the summit. Our results suggest that seamounts may provide enhanced foraging opportunities for beaked whales during the night through a combination of increased productivity, vertical migrations by micronekton and local retention of prey. Furthermore, the summit of the seamount may act as a barrier against which whales concentrate prey.
beaked whales; passive acoustic monitoring; seamounts; Pacific Ocean; fisheries acoustics
The strength of selection to increase the span of a life stage is dependent upon individuals at that stage being able to contribute towards individual fitness and the probability of their surviving to that stage. Complete reproductive cessation and a long post-reproductive female lifespan as found in humans are also found in killer whale (Orcinus orca) and short-finned pilot whale (Globicephala macrorhynchus), but not in the long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melaena). Each species forms kin-based, stable matrilineal groups and exhibits kin-directed behaviours that could increase inclusive fitness. Here, the initial mortality rate and mortality rate-doubling time of females of these three closely related whale species are compared. The initial mortality rate shows little variation among pilot whale species; however mortality rate accelerates almost twice as fast in the long-finned pilot whale as it does in killer whale and short-finned pilot whale. Selection for a long post-reproductive female lifespan in matrilineal whales may therefore be determined by the proportion of females surviving past the point of reproductive cessation.
senescence; whale; menopause; life history
Simultaneous high resolution sampling of predator behavior and habitat characteristics is often difficult to achieve despite its importance in understanding the foraging decisions and habitat use of predators. Here we tap into the biosonar system of Blainville's beaked whales, Mesoplodon densirostris, using sound and orientation recording tags to uncover prey-finding cues available to echolocating predators in the deep-sea. Echolocation sounds indicate where whales search and encounter prey, as well as the altitude of whales above the sea-floor and the density of organisms around them, providing a link between foraging activity and the bio-physical environment. Tagged whales (n = 9) hunted exclusively at depth, investing most of their search time either in the lower part of the deep scattering layer (DSL) or near the sea-floor with little diel change. At least 43% (420/974) of recorded prey-capture attempts were performed within the benthic boundary layer despite a wide range of dive depths, and many dives included both meso- and bentho-pelagic foraging. Blainville's beaked whales only initiate searching when already deep in the descent and encounter prey suitable for capture within 2 min of the start of echolocation, suggesting that these whales are accessing prey in reliable vertical strata. Moreover, these prey resources are sufficiently dense to feed the animals in what is effectively four hours of hunting per day enabling a strategy in which long dives to exploit numerous deep-prey with low nutritional value require protracted recovery periods (average 1.5 h) between dives. This apparent searching efficiency maybe aided by inhabiting steep undersea slopes with access to both the DSL and the sea-floor over small spatial scales. Aggregations of prey in these biotopes are located using biosonar-derived landmarks and represent stable and abundant resources for Blainville's beaked whales in the otherwise food-limited deep-ocean.
Populations of sea otters, seals and sea lions have collapsed across much of southwest Alaska over the past several decades. The sea otter decline set off a trophic cascade in which the coastal marine ecosystem underwent a phase shift from kelp forests to deforested sea urchin barrens. This interaction in turn affected the distribution, abundance and productivity of numerous other species. Ecological consequences of the pinniped declines are largely unknown. Increased predation by transient (marine mammal-eating) killer whales probably caused the sea otter declines and may have caused the pinniped declines as well. Springer et al. proposed that killer whales, which purportedly fed extensively on great whales, expanded their diets to include a higher percentage of sea otters and pinnipeds following a sharp reduction in great whale numbers from post World War II industrial whaling. Critics of this hypothesis claim that great whales are not now and probably never were an important nutritional resource for killer whales. We used demographic/energetic analyses to evaluate whether or not a predator–prey system involving killer whales and the smaller marine mammals would be sustainable without some nutritional contribution from the great whales. Our results indicate that while such a system is possible, it could only exist under a narrow range of extreme conditions and is therefore highly unlikely.
killer whale; sea otter; pinniped; Bering Sea/North Pacific; trophic cascade; indirect effects
Northern resident killer whales (Orcinus orca) live in highly stable groups and use group-specific vocal signals, but individual variation in calls has not been described previously. A towed beam-forming array was used to ascribe stereotyped pulsed calls with two independently modulated frequency contours to visually identified individual killer whales in Johnstone Strait, British Columbia. Overall, call similarity determined using neural networks differed significantly between different affiliation levels for both frequency components of all the call types analysed. This method distinguished calls from individuals within the same matriline better than different calls produced by a single individual and better than by chance. The calls of individuals from different matrilines were more distinctive than those within the same matriline, confirming previous studies based on group recordings. These results show that frequency contours of stereotyped calls differ among the individuals that are constantly associated with each other and use group-specific vocalizations, though across-group differences were substantially more pronounced.
vocal variation; signature; neural network; beam-forming
Beaked whales (Cetacea: Ziphiidea) of the genera Ziphius and Mesoplodon are so difficult to study that they are mostly known from strandings. How these elusive toothed whales use and react to sound is of concern because they mass strand during naval sonar exercises. A new non-invasive acoustic ording tag was attached to four beaked whales(two Mesoplodon densirostris and two Ziphius cavirostris) and recorded high-frequency clicks during deep dives. The tagged whales only clicked at depths below 200 m, down to a maximum depth of 1267 m. Both species produced a large number of short, directional, ultrasonic clicks with significant energy below 20 kHz. The tags recorded echoes from prey items; to our knowledge, a first for any animal echolocating in the wild. As far as we are aware, these echoes provide the first direct evidence on how free-ranging toothed whales use echolocation in foraging. The strength of these echoes suggests that the source level of Mesoplodon clicks is in the range of 200-220 dB re 1 microPa at 1 m.This paper presents conclusive data on the normal vocalizations of these beaked whale species, which may enable acoustic monitoring to mitigate exposure to sounds intense enough to harm them.
American whalemen sailed out of ports on the east coast of the United States and in California from the 18th to early 20th centuries, searching for whales throughout the world’s oceans. From an initial focus on sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) and right whales (Eubalaena spp.), the array of targeted whales expanded to include bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus), humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), and gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus). Extensive records of American whaling in the form of daily entries in whaling voyage logbooks contain a great deal of information about where and when the whalemen found whales. We plotted daily locations where the several species of whales were observed, both those caught and those sighted but not caught, on world maps to illustrate the spatial and temporal distribution of both American whaling activity and the whales. The patterns shown on the maps provide the basis for various inferences concerning the historical distribution of the target whales prior to and during this episode of global whaling.
Research on coursing predators has revealed that actions throughout the predatory behavioral sequence (using encounter rate, hunting rate, and kill rate as proxy measures of decisions) drive observed prey preferences. We tested whether similar actions drive the observed prey preferences of a stalking predator, the African lion Panthera leo. We conducted two 96 hour, continuous follows of lions in Addo Elephant National Park seasonally from December 2003 until November 2005 (16 follows), and compared prey encounter rate with prey abundance, hunt rate with prey encounter rate, and kill rate with prey hunt rate for the major prey species in Addo using Jacobs' electivity index. We found that lions encountered preferred prey species far more frequently than expected based on their abundance, and they hunted these species more frequently than expected based on this higher encounter rate. Lions responded variably to non-preferred and avoided prey species throughout the predatory sequence, although they hunted avoided prey far less frequently than expected based on the number of encounters of them. We conclude that actions of lions throughout the predatory behavioural sequence, but particularly early on, drive the prey preferences that have been documented for this species. Once a hunt is initiated, evolutionary adaptations to the predator-prey interactions drive hunting success.
Beaked whales, specifically Blainville's (Mesoplodon densirostris) and Cuvier's (Ziphius cavirostris), are known to feed in the Tongue of the Ocean, Bahamas. These whales can be reliably detected and often localized within the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center (AUTEC) acoustic sensor system. The AUTEC range is a regularly spaced bottom mounted hydrophone array covering >350 nm2 providing a valuable network to record anthropogenic noise and marine mammal vocalizations. Assessments of the potential risks of noise exposure to beaked whales have historically occurred in the absence of information about the physical and biological environments in which these animals are distributed. In the fall of 2008, we used a downward looking 38 kHz SIMRAD EK60 echosounder to measure prey scattering layers concurrent with fine scale turbulence measurements from an autonomous turbulence profiler. Using an 8 km, 4-leaf clover sampling pattern, we completed a total of 7.5 repeat surveys with concurrently measured physical and biological oceanographic parameters, so as to examine the spatiotemporal scales and relationships among turbulence levels, biological scattering layers, and beaked whale foraging activity. We found a strong correlation among increased prey density and ocean vertical structure relative to increased click densities. Understanding the habitats of these whales and their utilization patterns will improve future models of beaked whale habitat as well as allowing more comprehensive assessments of exposure risk to anthropogenic sound.
The production learning of vocalizations by manipulation of the sound production organs to alter the physical structure of sound has been demonstrated in only a few mammals. In this natural experiment, we document the vocal behaviour of two juvenile killer whales, Orcinus orca, separated from their natal pods, which are the only cases of dispersal seen during the three decades of observation of their populations. We find mimicry of California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) barks, demonstrating the vocal production learning ability for one of the calves. We also find differences in call usage (compared to the natal pod) that may reflect the absence of a repertoire model from tutors or some unknown effect related to isolation or context.
marine mammal; learning; acoustics; mimicry
A low level of genetic variation in mammalian populations where the census population size is relatively large has been attributed to various factors, such as a naturally small effective population size, historical bottlenecks and social behaviour. The killer whale (Orcinus orca) is an abundant, highly social species with reduced genetic variation. We find no consistent geographical pattern of global diversity and no mtDNA variation within some regional populations. The regional lack of variation is likely to be due to the strict matrilineal expansion of local populations. The worldwide pattern and paucity of diversity may indicate a historical bottleneck as an additional factor.
Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) undertake long migrations, from Baja California to Alaska, to feed on seasonally productive benthos of the Bering and Chukchi seas. The invertebrates that form their primary prey are restricted to shallow water environments, but global sea-level changes during the Pleistocene eliminated or reduced this critical habitat multiple times. Because the fossil record of gray whales is coincident with the onset of Northern Hemisphere glaciation, gray whales survived these massive changes to their feeding habitat, but it is unclear how.
We reconstructed gray whale carrying capacity fluctuations during the past 120,000 years by quantifying gray whale feeding habitat availability using bathymetric data for the North Pacific Ocean, constrained by their maximum diving depth. We calculated carrying capacity based on modern estimates of metabolic demand, prey availability, and feeding duration; we also constrained our estimates to reflect current population size and account for glaciated and non-glaciated areas in the North Pacific. Our results show that key feeding areas eliminated by sea-level lowstands were not replaced by commensurate areas. Our reconstructions show that such reductions affected carrying capacity, and harmonic means of these fluctuations do not differ dramatically from genetic estimates of carrying capacity.
Assuming current carrying capacity estimates, Pleistocene glacial maxima may have created multiple, weak genetic bottlenecks, although the current temporal resolution of genetic datasets does not test for such signals. Our results do not, however, falsify molecular estimates of pre-whaling population size because those abundances would have been sufficient to survive the loss of major benthic feeding areas (i.e., the majority of the Bering Shelf) during glacial maxima. We propose that gray whales survived the disappearance of their primary feeding ground by employing generalist filter-feeding modes, similar to the resident gray whales found between northern Washington State and Vancouver Island.