Who Am I? Exploring the theory of individualisation among marine mammals

By Lisa Hildebrand, MSc student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

“Just be yourself!” is a phrase that everyone has probably heard at least once in their lives. The idea of being an individual who is distinctly different from other individuals is a concept that is focal to the society we live in today. While historically it may have been frowned upon to be the “black sheep in the crowd”, nowadays that seems to be the goal.

Source: Go Comics.

This quest for uniqueness has resulted in different styles of fashion, speech, profession, interest in art, music, literature, automobile types – the list is endless. The American Psychological Association defines personality as the “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving”1. So, all of the choices we make on a daily basis shape our behaviour, and our behaviour in turn shapes our personality.

Since personality is something that is so engrained within human society, it isn’t surprising that ecologists have explored this concept among non-humans. Decades of research have resulted in an abundance of literature detailing personality in many different taxa and species, ranging from chimpanzees to mice to ants2. Naturally, the definition of personality for animals differs from that for humans since the assessment of animal thoughts and feelings is still somewhat of a locked box to us. Nevertheless, the behavioural aspect of the two definitions remains consistent whereby animal personality is broadly defined as “consistent variation in behavioural traits between individuals”3.

Although I am an early career marine mammal ecologist finding my footing in this rapidly expanding field, I have a keen interest in teasing apart possible cases of individual specialisation within marine mammal populations. So, before getting straight into the nitty gritty of individual specialisation, it is important for me to take a small step back and consider the concept of specialisation as applied to small subgroups or populations of marine mammals.

Specialisations are mostly related to foraging or feeding behaviour whereby a subgroup of individuals will develop a novel method to locate and capture prey. These behaviours have been reported for several marine mammal species, and are strongly coupled to intra and inter-specific competition with other predators for prey and habitat characteristics. Furthermore, it is posited that factors such as resource benefits (e.g. energy content of prey), prey escape rates, and handling times can be minimised if specialisation for a particular prey type or habitat occurs4.

In Florida Bay, Torres & Readdocumented two distinct foraging strategies employed by two bottlenose dolphin ecotypes. One dolphin ecotype was found to forage using deep diving with erratic surfacings, whereas the second ecotype chose to forage through mud ring feeding and were mostly seen in shallow habitats. The latter ecotype is in fact so adapted to shallow depths that dolphins were typically observed foraging in waters <2 m deep. In this example, the foraging tactics of the two ecotypes are strongly driven by habitat conditions, specifically depth. The video below is aerial footage of bottlenose dolphins performing mud ring feeding.

Such group specialisations have been identified not only in several other bottlenose dolphin populations around the world6,7, but also in other cetacean species, including killer whales (distinct differences in target prey between transients and residents8), Guiana dolphins (mud-plume feeding9), humpback dolphins (strand feeding10), and several others. Noticeable here is that these records concern Odontocete species, which is not surprising since these toothed whales are vastly different to baleen whales in that they often live in structured groups with bonds between individuals sometimes lasting for decades11. Long-term relationships are conducive to developing specialised group hunting strategies as individuals will spend considerable time with one another and the success of obtaining prey depends on the cooperation and coordination of the group.

For baleen whales and other marine mammals, such as pinnipeds, where life history and social organisation is more geared toward a solitary life, examples of group specialisations are relatively rare (with the exception of the well-documented bubble-net feeding exhibited by humpback whales12). While group specialisation may not be as prevalent in Mysticetes, the same problems of inter and intra-specific competition persists among these more solitary species too, which would suggest that individuals should develop their own unique foraging tactics and preferences. Evidence for individualisation is hard to obtain since it requires repeated observations of the same individuals over time with good knowledge of the prey type being consumed and/or the habitat being used to forage in.

Nevertheless, examples do exist. Perhaps the most well-documented case of individualisation within a population for marine mammals is of the sea otter. Estes et al. (2003) describe 10 female sea otters in Monterey Bay that had high inter-individual variation in diet, which they investigated over a scale of 8 years13. Most females specialised on 1-4 types of prey, with marked differences between the diets chosen by each female, despite habitat overlap. This individualisation of diet was not attributable to variation in prey availability; hence, authors concluded that this extreme specialisation occurred to reduce intra-population competition for prey.

Ecologists have historically (and probably still to this day) disagreed on whether individualisation actually matters in the grand scheme of things. There are generally three schools of thought on the matter: (1) individual specialisation is rare and/or weakly influences population dynamics and so is not very important; (2) while individual specialisation does occur and may in fact be commonplace, it does not affect ecological processes at the large population scale; and (3) individual specialisation is widespread and can significantly impact population dynamics and/or ecosystem function.

As you might have guessed by this point, I find myself in the third school of thought. There are many arguments supporting this theory, and what I believe to be very good arguments against statements 1 and 2. While I have only provided one specific named example for individual specialisation in a marine mammal, there are several documented cases of such occurrences among other marine taxa (e.g., pinnipeds14, sharks15, fish16) and a much larger number of studies for terrestrial species4. Thus, the claim that it is rare or weak, seems implausible to me.

Statement 2 is a little more complicated to tackle as it involves understanding how actions on a relatively small scale affect a whole population or even an ecosystem. For instance, consider two female sea otters living in a small coastal area where one sea otter prefers to eat turban snails and the other exclusively feeds on abalone. The sudden decline in abundance of either of these prey could lead to serious health and reproductive issues for those females. Should the low prey abundance persist, then poor health and reproduction of several females in a population that specialise on that prey item can rapidly lead to genetic loss and an overall population decline. Particularly if an individual’s or species’ home range is rather restricted or small. In the case of the sea otter, which are often touted as a keystone species due to its presence preventing sea urchin barren formation that is known to wreak havoc on kelp forests, knock-on effects of such a population decline could result in poor overall ecosystem health.

It may be easy to assume that one individual dolphin, otter, seal or whale cannot possibly make a difference to a whole population or ecosystem. This assumption strikes me as a little odd since humans are always told to ‘be the change they wish to see in the world’ and that ‘every person can make a difference’. Why then should these sentiments not be applicable to non-humans? While a gray whale may not hold a sign at a protest or run for president (actions commonly considered to cause change in the human world), perhaps the choice that a gray whale makes every day to only consume one species of zooplankton, can influence other gray whales in the area, predators from other taxa, habitat structure, other prey availability, and/or cause trophic cascades.

Through my research, I aim to elucidate whether the gray whales display some level of foraging individualisation while feeding in Port Orford, Oregon. I will use data from four years to compare tracks of individual whales with zooplankton samples collected in the area to correlate each individual’s movement patterns with prey availability. I will assess the quality of prey through bomb calorimetry and microplastic analysis of the zooplankton samples to determine energetic content and pollutant levels, respectively. This prey assessment will describe the potential effects of prey specialization on whales, which is fundamental to assessing overall population health. Individualisation can strongly affect fitness of individuals, either positively or negatively depending on several factors, which will undoubtedly have an impact at the population level.

(The videos below are examples of two different tactics we see the gray whales display while foraging along the Oregon coast in the summer months. The first video shows a whale foraging among kelp with some very acrobatic moves, while the second is of a whale employing the ‘sharking’ method where the whale is feeding benthically in such shallow depths that both the pectoral fin and the fluke stick out of the water, making the whale look like a ‘shark’.)


  1. American Psychological Association, Personality. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/topics/personality/.
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