Snacks at the surface: New GEMM Lab publication reveals insights into blue whale surface foraging through drone observations and prey data

By Dawn Barlow, PhD student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

As the largest animals on the planet, blue whales have massive prey requirements to meet energy demands. Despite their enormity, blue whales feed on a tiny but energy-rich prey source: krill. Furthermore, they are air-breathing mammals searching for aggregations of prey in the expansive and deep ocean, and must therefore budget breath-holding and oxygen consumption, the travel time it takes to reach prey patches at depth, the physiological constraints of diving, and the necessary recuperation time at the surface. Additionally, blue whales employ an energetically demanding foraging strategy known as lunge feeding, which is only efficient if they can locate and target dense prey aggregations that compensate for the energetic costs of diving and lunging. In our recent paper, published today in PeerJ, we examine how blue whales in New Zealand optimize their energy use through preferentially feeding on dense krill aggregations near the water’s surface.

Figure 1. A blue whale lunges on a dense aggregation of krill at the surface. Note the krill jumping away from the mouth of the onrushing whale. UAS piloted by Todd Chandler.
Figure 2. Survey tracklines in 2017 in the South Taranaki Bight (STB) with locations of blue whale sightings, and where surface lunge feeding was observed, denoted. Inset map shows location of the STB within New Zealand. Figure reprinted from Torres et al. 2020.

To understand how predators such as blue whales optimize foraging strategies, knowledge of predator behavior and prey distribution is needed. In 2017, we surveyed for blue whales in New Zealand’s South Taranaki Bight region (STB, Fig. 2) while simultaneously collecting prey distribution data using an echosounder, which allowed us to identify the location, depth, and density of krill aggregations throughout the region. When blue whales were located, we observed their behavior from the research vessel, recorded their dive times, and used an unmanned aerial system (UAS; “drone”) to assess their body condition and behavior.

Much of what is known about blue whale foraging behavior and energetics comes from extensive studies off the coast of California, USA using accelerometer tags to track fine-scale kinematics (i.e., body movements) of the whales. In the California Current, the krill species targeted by blue whales are denser at depth, and therefore blue whales regularly dive to depths of 300 meters to lunge on the most energy-rich prey aggregations. However, given the reduced energetic costs of feeding closer to the surface, optimal foraging theory predicts that blue whales should only forage at depth when the energetic gain outweighs the cost. In New Zealand, we found that blue whales foraged where krill aggregations were relatively shallow and dense compared to the availability of krill across the whole study area (Fig. 3). Their dive times were quite short (~2.5 minutes, compared to ~10 minutes in California), and became even shorter in locations where foraging behavior and surface lunge feeding were observed.

Figure 3. Density contours comparing the depth and density (Sv) of krill aggregations at blue whale foraging sightings (red shading) and in absence of blue whales (gray shading). Density contours: 25% = darkest shade, 755 = medium shade, 95% = light shade. Blue circles indicate krill aggregations detected within 2 km of the sighting of the UAS filmed surface foraging whale analyzed in this study. Figure reprinted from Torres et al. 2020.
Figure 4. Kinematics of a blue whale foraging dive derived from a suction cup tag. Upper panel shows the dive profile (yellow line), with lunges highlighted (green circles), superimposed on a prey field map showing qualitative changes in krill density (white, low; blue, medium; red, high). The lower panels show the detailed kinematics during lunges at depth. Here, the dive profile is shown by a black line. The orange line shows fluking strokes derived from the accelerometer data, the green line represents speed estimated from flow noise, and the grey circles indicate the speed calculated from the vertical velocity of the body divided by the sine of the body pitch angle, which is shown by the red line. Figure and caption reprinted from Goldbogen et al. 2011.

Describing whale foraging behavior and prey in the surface waters has been difficult due to logistical limitations of conventional data collection methods, such as challenges inferring surface behavior from tag data and quantifying echosounder backscatter data in surface waters. To compliment these existing methods and fill the knowledge gap surrounding surface behavior, we highlight the utility of a different technological tool: UAS. By analyzing video footage of a surface lunge feeding sequence, we obtained estimates of the whale’s speed, acceleration, roll angle, and head inclination, producing a figure comparable to what is typically obtained from accelerometer tag data (Fig. 4, Fig. 5). Furthermore, the aerial perspective provided by the UAS provides an unprecedented look at predator-prey interactions between blue whales and krill. As the whale approaches the krill patch, she first observes the patch with her right eye, then turns and lines up her attack angle to engulf almost the entire prey patch through her lunge. Furthermore, we can pinpoint the moment when the krill recognize the impending danger of the oncoming predator—at a distance of 2 meters, and 0.8 seconds before the whale strikes the patch, the krill show a flee response where they leap away from the whale’s mouth (see video, below).

Figure 5. Body kinematics during blue whale surface lunge feeding event derived from Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) image analysis. (A) Mean head inclination and roll (with CV in shaded areas), (B) relative speed and acceleration, and (C) distance from the tip of the whale’s rostrum to the nearest edge of krill patch. Blue line on plots indicate when krill first respond to the predation event, and the purple dashed lines indicate strike at time = 0. The orange lines indicate the time at which the whale’s gape is widest, head inclination is maximum, and deceleration is greatest. Figure reprinted from Torres et al. 2020

In this study, we demonstrate that surface waters provide important foraging opportunities and play a key role in the ecology of New Zealand blue whales. The use of UAS technology could be a valuable and complimentary tool to other technological approaches, such as tagging, to gain a comprehensive understanding of foraging behavior in whales.

To see the spectacle of a blue whale surface lunge feeding, we invite you to take a look at the video footage, below:

The publication is led by GEMM Lab Principal Investigator Dr. Leigh Torres. I led the prey data analysis portion of the study, and co-authors include our drone pilot extraordinaire Todd Chandler and UAS analysis guru Dr. Jonathan Burnett. We are grateful to all who assisted with fieldwork and data collection, including Kristin Hodge, Callum Lilley, Mike Ogle, and the crew of the R/V Star Keys (Western Workboats, Ltd.). Funding for this research was provided by The Aotearoa Foundation, The New Zealand Department of Conservation, The Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, Greenpeace New Zealand, OceanCare, Kiwis Against Seabed Mining, The International Fund for Animal Welfare, and The Thorpe Foundation.

Read Oregon State University’s press release about the publication here.

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