Connecting Research Questions

Clara Bird, Masters Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

The field season can be quite a hectic time of year. Between long days out on the water, trouble-shooting technology issues, organizing/processing the data as it comes in, and keeping up with our other projects/responsibilities, it can be quite overwhelming and exhausting.

But despite all of that, it’s an incredible and exciting time of year. Outside of the field season, we spend most of our time staring at our computers analyzing the data that we spend a relatively short amount of time collecting. When going through that process it can be easy to lose sight of why we do what we do, and to feel disconnected from the species we are studying. Oftentimes the analysis problems we encounter involve more hours of digging through coding discussion boards than learning about the animals themselves. So, as busy as it is, I find that the field season can be pretty inspiring. I have recently been looking through our most recent drone footage of gray whales and feeling renewed excitement for my thesis.

At the moment, my thesis has four central questions: (1) Are there associations between habitat type and gray whale foraging tactic? (2) Is there evidence of individualization? (3) What is the relationship between behavior and body condition? (4) Do we see evidence of learning in the behavior of mom and calf pairs? As I’ve been organizing my thoughts, what’s become quite clear is how interconnected these questions are. So, I thought I’d take this blog to describe the potential relationships.

Let’s start with the first question: are there associations between habitat types and gray whale foraging tactics? This question is central because it relates foraging behavior to habitat, which is ultimately associated with prey. This relationship is the foundation of all other questions involving foraging tactics because food is necessary for the whales to have the energy and nutrients they need to survive. It’s reasonable to think that the whales are flexible and use different foraging tactics to eat different prey that live in different habitats. But, if different prey types have different nutritional value (this is something that Lisa is studying right now; check out the COZI project to learn more), then not all whales may be getting the same nutrients.

The next question relates to the first question but is not necessarily dependent on it. It’s the question of individualization, a topic Lisa also explored in a past blog. Within our Oregon field sites we have documented a variety of gray whale foraging tactics (Torres et al. 2018; Video 1) but we do not know if all gray whales use all the tactics or if different individuals only use certain tactics. While I think it’s unlikely that one whale only uses one tactic all the time, I think we could see an individual use one tactic more often than the others. I reason that there could be two reasons for this pattern. First, it could be a response to resource availability; certain tactics are more efficient than others, this could be because the tactic involves capturing the more nutritious prey or because the behavior is less energetically demanding. Second, foraging tactics are socially learned as calves from their mothers, and hence individuals use those learned tactics more frequently. This pattern of maternally inherited foraging tactics has been documented in other marine mammals (Mann and Sargeant 2009; Estes et al. 2003). These questions between foraging tactic, habitat and individualization also tie into the remaining two questions.

My third question is about the relationship between behavior and body condition. As I’ve discussed in a previous blog, I am interested in assessing the relative energetic costs and benefits of the different foraging tactics. Is one foraging tactic more cost-effective than another (less energy out per energy in)? Ever since our lab’s cetacean behavioral ecology class, I’ve been thinking about how my work relates to niche partitioning theory (Pianka 1974).This theory states that when there is low prey availability, niche partitioning will increase. Niche partitioning can occur across several different dimensions: for instance, prey type, foraging location, and time of day when active. If gray whales partition across the prey type dimension, then different whales would feed on different kinds of prey. If whales partition resources across the foraging location dimension, individuals would feed in different areas. Lastly, if whales partition resources across the time axis, individuals would feed at different times of day. Using different foraging tactics to feed on different prey would be an example of partitioning across the prey type dimension. If there is a more preferable prey type, then maybe in years of high prey availability, we would see most of the gray whales using the same tactics to feed on the same prey type. However, in years of low prey availability we might expect to see a greater variety of foraging tactics being used. The question then becomes, does any whale end up using the less beneficial foraging tactic? If so, which whales use the less beneficial tactic? Do the same individuals always switch to the less beneficial tactic? Is there a common characteristic among the individuals that switched, like sex, age, size, or reproductive status? Lemos et al. (2020) hypothesized that the decline in body condition observed from 2016 to 2017 might be a carryover effect from low prey availability in 2016. Could it be that the whales that use the less beneficial tactic exhibit poor body condition the following year?

My fourth, and final, question asks if foraging tactics are passed down from moms to their calves. We have some footage of a mom foraging with her calf nearby, and occasionally it looks like the calf could be copying its mother. Reviewing this footage spiked my interest in seeing if there are similarities between the behavior tactics used by moms and those used by their calves after they have been weaned. While this question clearly relates to the question of individualization, it is also related to body condition: what if the foraging tactics used by the mom is influenced by her body condition at the time?

I hope to answer some of these fascinating questions using the data we have collected during our long field days over the past 6 years. In all likelihood, the story that comes together during my thesis research will be different from what I envision now and will likely lead to more questions. That being said, I’m excited to see how the story unfolds and I look forward to sharing the evolving ideas and plot lines with all of you.


Estes, J A, M L Riedman, M M Staedler, M T Tinker, and B E Lyon. 2003. “Individual Variation in Prey Selection by Sea Otters: Patterns, Causes and Implications.” Source: Journal of Animal Ecology. Vol. 72.

Mann, Janet, and Brooke Sargeant. 2009. “ Like Mother, like Calf: The Ontogeny of Foraging Traditions in Wild Indian Ocean Bottlenose Dolphins ( Tursiops Sp.) .” In The Biology of Traditions, 236–66. Cambridge University Press.

Pianka, Eric R. 1974. “Niche Overlap and Diffuse Competition” 71 (5): 2141–45.

Soledade Lemos, Leila, Jonathan D Burnett, Todd E Chandler, James L Sumich, and Leigh G. Torres. 2020. “Intra‐ and Inter‐annual Variation in Gray Whale Body Condition on a Foraging Ground.” Ecosphere 11 (4).

Torres, Leigh G., Sharon L. Nieukirk, Leila Lemos, and Todd E. Chandler. 2018. “Drone up! Quantifying Whale Behavior from a New Perspective Improves Observational Capacity.” Frontiers in Marine Science 5 (SEP).

Dolphin Diets: Common bottlenose dolphin prey preferences off California

By: Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab 

Humans are fascinated by food. We want to know its source, its nutrient content, when it was harvested and by whom, and so much more. Since childhood, I was the nagging child who interrogated wait staff about the seafood menu because I cared about the sustainability aspect as well as consuming ethically-sourced seafood. Decades later I still do the same: ask a myriad of questions from restaurants and stores in order to eat as sustainably as possible. But in addition to asking these questions about my food, I also question what my study species eats and why. My study populations, common bottlenose dolphins, are described as top opportunistic predators (Norris and Prescott 1961, Shane et al. 1986, Barros and Odell 1990). In my study area off of California, this species exists in two ecotypes. The coastal ecotype off of California, USA are generalist predators, feeding on many different species of fish using different foraging techniques (Ballance 1992, Shane 1990). The offshore ecotype, on the other hand, is less well-studied, but is frequently observed in association with sperm whales, although the reason is still unknown (Díaz-Gamboa et al. 2018). Stable isotope analysis from skin samples from the two ecotypes indicates that the ecotypes exhibit different foraging strategies based on different isotopic carbon and nitrogen levels (Díaz-Gamboa et al. 2018).

Growing up, I kept the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide with me to choose the most sustainably-sourced seafood at restaurants. Today there is an easy-to-use application for mobile phones that replaced the paper guide. (Image Source:

Preliminary and historical data on common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) suggest that the coastal ecotype spend more time near estuary mouths than offshore dolphins (Ballance 1992, Kownacki et al. unpublished data). Estuaries contain large concentrations of nutrients from runoff, which support zooplankton and fishes. It is for this reason that these estuaries are thought to be hotspots for bottlenose dolphin foraging. Some scientists hypothesize that these dolphins are estuarine-based prey specialists (Barros and Odell 1990), or that the dolphins simply aggregate in estuaries due to higher prey abundance (Ballance 1992).

Coastal bottlenose dolphins traveling near an estuary mouth in San Diego, CA. (Photographed under NOAA NMFS Permit # 19091).

In an effort to understand diet compositions of bottlenose dolphins, during coastal surveys seabirds were recorded in association with feeding groups of dolphins. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that dolphins were feeding on the same fishes as Brown pelicans, blue-footed and brown boobies, double-crested cormorants, and magnificent frigatebirds, seeing as they were the most common species associated with bottlenose dolphin feeding groups (Ballance 1992). A shore-based study by Hanson and Defran (1993) found that coastal dolphins fed more often in the early morning and late afternoon, as well as during periods of high tide current. These patterns may have to do with the temporal and spatial distribution of prey fish species. From the few diet studies conducted on these bottlenose dolphins in this area, 75% of the prey were species from the families Ebiotocidae (surf perches) and Sciaendae (croakers) (Norris and Prescott 1961, Walker 1981). These studies, in addition to optimal foraging models, suggest this coastal ecotype may not be as much of a generalist as originally suggested (Defran et al. 1999).

A redtail surfperch caught by a fisherman from a beach in San Diego, CA. These fish are thought to be common prey of coastal bottlenose dolphins. (Image Source: FishwithJD)

Diet studies on the offshore ecotype of bottlenose dolphins worldwide show a preference for cephalopods, similar to other toothed cetaceans who occupy similar regions, such as Risso’s dolphin, sperm whales, and pilot whales (Clarke 1986, Cockcroft and Ross 1990, Gonzalez et al. 1994, Barros et al. 2000, Walker et al. 1999). Because these animals seldom strand on accessible beaches, stomach contents analyses are limited to few studies and isotope analysis is more widely available from biopsies. We know these dolphins are sighted in deeper waters than the habitat of coastal dolphins where there are fewer nutrient plumes, so it is reasonable to hypothesize that the offshore ecotype consumes different species and may be more specialized than the coastal ecotype.

An bottlenose dolphin forages on an octopus. (Image source: Mandurah Cruises)

For a species that is so often observed from shore and boats, and is known for its charisma, it may be surprising that the diets of both the coastal and offshore bottlenose dolphins are still largely unknown. Such is the challenge of studying animals that live and feed underwater. I wish I could simply ask a dolphin, much like I would ask staff at restaurants: what is on the menu today? But, unfortunately, that is not possible. Instead, we must make educated hypotheses about the diets of both ecotypes based on necropsies and stable isotope studies, and behavioral and spatial surveys. And, I will continue to look to new technologies and creative thinking to provide the answers we are seeking.

Literature cited:

Ballance, L. T. (1992). Habitat use patterns and ranges of the bottlenose dolphin in the Gulf of California, Mexico. Marine Mammal Science8(3), 262-274.

Barros, N.B., and D. K. Odell. (1990). Food habits of bottlenose dolphins in the southeastern United States. Pages 309-328 in S. Leatherwood and R. R. Reeves, eds. The bottlenose dolphin. Academic Press, San Diego, CA.

Barros, N., E. Parsons and T. Jefferson. (2000). Prey of bottlenose dolphins from the South China Sea. Aquatic Mammals 26:2–6.

Clarke, M. 1986. Cephalopods in the diet of odontocetes. Pages 281–321 in M. Bryden and R. Harrison, eds. Research on dolphins. Clarendon Press, Oxford, NY.

Cockcroft, V., and G. Ross. (1990). Food and feeding of the Indian Ocean bottlenose dolphin off southern Natal, South Africa. Pages 295–308 in S. Leatherwood and R. R. Reeves, eds. The bottlenose dolphin. Academic Press, San Diego, CA.

Defran, R. H., Weller, D. W., Kelly, D. L., & Espinosa, M. A. (1999). Range characteristics of Pacific coast bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in the Southern California Bight. Marine Mammal Science15(2), 381-393.

Díaz‐Gamboa, R. E., Gendron, D., & Busquets‐Vass, G. (2018). Isotopic niche width differentiation between common bottlenose dolphin ecotypes and sperm whales in the Gulf of California. Marine Mammal Science34(2), 440-457.

Gonzalez, A., A. Lopez, A. Guerra and A. Barreiro. (1994). Diets of marine mammals stranded on the northwestern Spanish Atlantic coast with special reference to Cephalopoda. Fisheries Research 21:179–191.

Hanson, M. T., and Defran, R. H. (1993). The behavior and feeding ecology of the Pacific coast bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus. Aquatic Mammals19, 127-127.

Norris, K. S., and J. H. Prescott. (1961). Observations on Pacific cetaceans of Californian and Mexican waters. University of California Publications of Zoology 63:29, 1-402.

Shane, S. H. (1990). Comparison of bottlenose dolphin behavior in Texas and Florida, with a critique of methods for studying dolphin behavior. Pages 541-558 in S. Leatherwood and R. R. Reeves, eds. The bottlenose dolphin. Academic Press, San Diego, CA.

Shane, S., R. Wells and B. Wursig. (1986). Ecology, behavior and social organization of bottlenose dolphin: A review. Marine Mammal Science 2:34–63.

Walker, W.A. (1981). Geographical variation in morphology and biology of the bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops) in the eastern North Pacific. NMFS/SWFC Administrative Report. No, LJ-91-03C.

Walker, J., C. Potter and S. Macko. (1999). The diets of modern and historic bottlenose dolphin populations reflected through stable isotopes. Marine Mammal Science 15:335–350.