What are the ecological impacts of gray whale benthic feeding?

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

Happy new year from the GEMM lab! Starting graduate school comes with a lot of learning. From skills, to learning about how much there is to learn, to learning about the system I will be studying in depth for the next few years. This last category has been the most exciting to me because digging into the literature on a system or a species always leads to the unearthing of some fascinating and surprising facts. So, for this blog I will write about one of the aspects of gray whale foraging that intrigues me most: benthic feeding and its impacts.

How do gray whales feed?

Gray whales are a unique species. Unlike other baleen whales, such as humpback and blue whales, gray whales regularly feed off the bottom of the ocean (Nerini, 1984). They roll to one side and swim along the bottom, they then suction up (by depressing their tongue) the sediment and prey, then the sediment and water is filtered out of the baleen. In fact, we use sediment streams, shown in Figure 1, as an indicator of benthic feeding behavior when analyzing drone footage (Torres et al. 2018).

Figure 1. Screenshot of drone video showing sediment streaming from mouth of a whale after benthic feeding. Video taken under NOAA/NMFS permit #21678

Locations of benthic feeding can be identified without directly observing a gray whale actively feeding because of the excavated pits that result from benthic feeding (Nerini 1984). These pits can be detected using side-scan sonar that is commonly used to map the seafloor. Oliver and Slattery (1985) found that the pits typically are from 2-20 m2. In some of the imagery, consecutive neighboring pits are visible, likely created by one whale in series during a feeding event. Figure 2 shows different arrangements of pits.

Figure 2. Different arrangements of pits created by feeding whales (Nerini 1984).

Aside from how fascinating the behavior is, benthic feeding is also interesting because it has a large impact on the environment. Coming from a background of studying baleen whales that primarily feed on krill, I had not really considered the potential impacts of whale foraging other than removing prey from the environment. However, when gray whales feed, they excavate large areas of the benthic substrate that disturb and impact the habitat.

The impacts of benthic feeding

Weitkamp et al. (1992) conducted a study on gray whale benthic foraging on ghost shrimp in Puget Sound, WA, USA. This study, conducted over two years, focused on measuring the impact of benthic foraging by its effect on prey abundance. They found that the standing stock of ghost shrimp within a recently excavated pit was two to five times less than that outside the pit, and that 3100 to 5700 grams of shrimp can be removed per pit. From aerial surveys they estimated that within one season feeding gray whales created between 2700 and 3200 pits. Using these values, they calculated that 55 to 79% of the standing stock of ghost shrimp was removed each season by foraging gray whales. Interestingly, they found that the shrimp biomass within an excavated pit recovered within about two months.

Oliver and Slattery (1985) also found a recovery period of about 2 months per pit in their study on the effect of gray whale benthic feeding on the prey community in the Bering Sea. They sampled prey within and outside feeding excavations, both actual whale pits and man-made, to test the response of the benthic community to the disturbance of a feeding event. They found that after the initial feeding disturbance, the excavated area was rapidly colonized by scavenging lysianassid amphipods, which are small (10 mm) crustaceans that typically eat dead organic material. These amphipods rushed in and attacked the organisms that were injured or dislodged by the whale feeding event, typically small crustaceans and polychaete worms. Within hours of the whale feeding event, these amphipods had dispersed and a different genre of scavenging lysianassid amphipods slowly invaded the excavated pit further and stayed much longer. After a few days or weeks these pits collected and trapped organic debris that attracted more colonists. Indeed, they found that the number of colonists remained elevated within the excavated areas for over two months.

Notably, these results on how the disturbance of gray whale benthic feeding changes sediment composition support the idea that this foraging behavior maintains the sand substrate and therefore helps to maintain balanced levels of benthic dwelling amphipods, their primary source of prey in this study area (Johnson and Nelson, 1984). Gray whales scour the sea floor when they feed and this process leads to the resuspension of lots of sediments and nutrients that would otherwise remain on the seafloor. Therefore, while this feeding may seem like a violent disturbance, it may in fact play a large role in benthic productivity (Johnson and Nelson, 1984; Oliver and Slattery, 1985).

These ecosystem impacts of gray whale benthic feeding I have described above demonstrate the various stages of invaders after a feeding disturbance, and the process of succession. Succession is the ecological process of how a community structure builds and grows. Primary succession is when the structure grows from truly nothing and secondary succession occurs after a disturbance, such as a fire. In secondary succession, there are typically pioneer species that first appear and then give way to other species and a more complex community eventually emerges. Succession is well documented in many terrestrial studies after disturbance events, and the processes of secondary succession is very important to community ecology and resilience.

Since gray whale benthic foraging does not impact an entire habitat all at once, the process is not perfectly comparable to secondary succession in terrestrial systems. Yet, when thinking about the smaller scale, another example of succession in the marine environment takes place at a whale fall. When a whale dies and sinks to the ocean floor, a small ecosystem emerges. Different organisms arrive at different stages to scavenge different parts of the carcass and a food web is created around it.

To me the impacts of gray whale benthic feeding are akin to both terrestrial disturbance events and whale falls. The excavation serves as a disturbance, and through secondary succession the habitat is refreshed via stages of different species colonization until the system eventually returns to the pre-disturbance levels. However, like a whale fall the feeding event leaves behind injured or displaced organisms that scavengers consume; in fact seabirds are known to take advantage of benthic invertebrates that are brought to the surface by a gray whale feeding event (Harrison, 1979). 

So much of our research is focused on questions about how the changing environment impacts our study species and not the other way around. This venture into the literature has provided me with an important reminder to think about flipping the question. I have enjoyed starting 2020 with a reminder of how cool gray whales are, and that while a disturbance can initially be thought of as negative, it may actually bring about important, and positive, change.

References

Nerini, Mary. 1984. “A Review of Gray Whale Feeding Ecology.” In The Gray Whale: Eschrichtius Robustus, 423–50. Elsevier Inc. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-092372-7.50024-8.

Oliver, J. S., and P. N. Slattery. 1985. “Destruction and Opportunity on the Sea Floor: Effects of Gray Whale Feeding.” Ecology 66 (6): 1965–75. https://doi.org/10.2307/2937392.

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). https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2018.00319.

Weitkamp, Laurie A, Robert C Wissmar, Charles A Simenstad, Kurt L Fresh, and Jay G Odell. 1992. “Gray Whale Foraging on Ghost Shrimp (Callianassa Californiensis) in Littoral Sand Flats of Puget Sound, USA.” Canadian Journal of Zoology 70 (11): 2275–80. https://doi.org/10.1139/z92-304.

Johnson, Kirk R., and C. Hans Nelson. 1984. “Side-Scan Sonar Assessment of Gray Whale Feeding in the Bering Sea.” Science 225 (4667): 1150–52.

Harrison, Craig S. 1979. “The Association of Marine Birds and Feeding Gray Whales.” The Condor 81 (1): 93. https://doi.org/10.2307/1367866.

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