The right tool for the job: examining the links between animal behavior, morphology and habitat

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

In order to understand a species’ distribution, spatial ecologists assess which habitat characteristics are most often associated with a species’ presence. Incorporating behavior data can improve this analysis by revealing the functional use of each habitat type, which can help scientists and managers assign relative value to different habitat types. For example, habitat used for foraging is often more important than habitat that a species just travels through. Further complexity is added when we consider that some species, such as gray whales, employ a variety of foraging tactics on a variety of prey types that are associated with different habitats. If individual foraging tactic specialization is present, different foraging habitats could be valuable to specific subgroups that use each tactic. Consequently, for a population that uses a variety of foraging tactics, it’s important to study the associations between tactics and habitat characteristics.

Lukoschek and McCormick’s (2001) study investigating the spatial distribution of a benthic fish species’ foraging behavior is a great example of combining data on behavior, habitat, and morphology.  They collected data on the diet composition of individual fish categorized into different size classes (small, medium, and large) and what foraging tactics were used in which reef zones and habitat types. The foraging tactics ranged from feeding in the water column to digging (at a range of depths) in the benthic substrate. The results showed that an interesting combination of fish behavior and morphology explained the observed diet composition and spatial distribution patterns. Small fish foraged in shallower water, on smaller prey, and primarily employed the water column and shallow digging tactics. In contrast, large fish foraged in deep water, on larger prey, and primarily fed by digging deeper into the seafloor (Figure 1). This pattern is explained by both morphology and behavior. Morphologically, the size of the feeding apparatus (mouth gape size) affects the size of the prey that a fish can feed on. The gape of the small fish is not large enough to eat the larger prey that large fish are able to consume. Behaviorally, predation risk also affects habitat selection and tactic use. Small fish are at higher risk of being predated on, so they remain in shallow areas where they are more protected from predators and they don’t dig as deep to forage because they need to be able to keep an eye out for predators. Interestingly, while they found a relationship between the morphology of the fish and habitat use, they did not find an association between specific feeding tactics and habitat types.

Figure 1. Figure from Lukoschek and McCormick (2001) showing that small fish (black bar) were found in shallow habitat while large fish (white bar) were found in deep habitat.

Conversely, Torres and Read (2009) did find associations between theforaging tactics of bottlenose dolphins in Florida Bay, FL and habitat type. Dolphins in this bay employ three foraging tactics: herd and chase, mud ring feeding, and deep diving. Observations of the foraging tactics were linked to habitat characteristics and individual dolphins. The study found that these tactics are spatially structured by depth (Figure 2), with deep diving occurring in deep water whereas mud ring feeding occurrs in shallower water. They also found evidence of individual specialization! Individuals that were observed deep diving were not observed mud ring feeding and vice-versa. Furthermore, they found that individuals were found in the habitat type associated with their preferred tactic regardless of whether they were foraging or not. This result indicates that individual dolphins in this bay have a foraging tactic they prefer and tend to stay in the corresponding habitat type. These findings are really intriguing and raise interesting questions regarding how these tactics and specializations are developed or learned. These are questions that I am also interested in asking as part of my thesis.

Figure 2. Figure from Torres and Read (2009) showing that deep diving is associated with deeper habitat while mud ring feeding is associated with shallow habitat.

Both of these studies are cool examples that, combined, exemplify questions I am interested in examining using our study population of Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales. Like both studies, I am interested in assessing how specific foraging tactics are associated with habitat types. Our hypothesis is that different prey types live in different habitat types, so each tactic corresponds to the best way to feed on that prey type in that habitat. While predation risk doesn’t have as much of an effect on foraging gray whales as it does on small benthic fish, I do wonder how disturbance from boats could similarly affect tactic preference and spatial distribution. I am also curious to see if depth has an effect on tactic choice by using the morphology data from our drone-based photogrammetry. Given that these whales forage in water that is sometimes as deep as they are long, it stands to reason that maneuverability would affect tactic use. As described in a previous blog, I’m also looking for evidence of individual specialization. It will be fascinating to see how foraging preference relates to space use, habitat preference, and morphology.

These studies demonstrate the complexity involved in studying a population’s relationship to its habitat. Such research involves considering the morphology and physiology of the animals, their social, individual, foraging, and predator-prey behaviors, and the relationship between their prey and the habitat. It’s a bit daunting but mostly really exciting because better understanding each puzzle piece improves our ability to estimate how these animals will react to changing environmental conditions.

While I don’t have any answers to these questions yet, I will be working with a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates intern this summer to develop a habitat map of our study area that will be used in this analysis and potentially answer some preliminary questions about PCFG gray whale habitat use patterns. So, stay tuned to hear more about our work this summer!


Lukoschek, V., & McCormick, M. (2001). Ontogeny of diet changes in a tropical benthic carnivorous fish, Parupeneus barberinus (Mullidae): Relationship between foraging behaviour, habitat use, jaw size, and prey selection. Marine Biology, 138(6), 1099–1113.

Torres, L. G., & Read, A. J. (2009). Where to catch a fish? The influence of foraging tactics on the ecology of bottlenose dolphins ( Tursiops truncatus ) in Florida Bay, Florida. Marine Mammal Science, 25(4), 797–815.

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