, Volume 158, Issue 4, pp 715-722
Date: 08 Dec 2010

Evaluating the relative importance of intrinsic and extrinsic factors on the foraging activity of top predators: a case study on female little penguins

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A complex interaction of biotic and abiotic factors influences animal foraging activity. It is often difficult to understand which factors may affect animals’ foraging and how it is affected. For instance, whereas the effect of sexual dimorphism on foraging activity has been reported in several species, little is known of the complex interactions between variables acting at a finer scale, e.g. the variability of body mass within a sex. Evaluating the importance of these finer scale factors is also essential to the understanding of foraging behaviour. We propose here a simple approach by applying principal component analysis (PCA) in a novel way to examine relationships between biotic and abiotic factors affecting foraging behaviour of top predators. We studied female little penguins (Eudyptula minor) of known age, carrying miniature accelerometers during the guard stage of breeding. Surprisingly, the body mass of the females did not influence any of the foraging parameters, but females foraging later in the breeding season dived shallower and more often, showing a strong correlation with laying date. Similarly, the diving effort of females was greater with increasing chick age within the same breeding stage. These results indicate that for female little penguin, the relationship between changes in prey availability and hunting effort can change at a fine scale, within a breeding stage. Therefore, any analysis of little penguin foraging behaviour during breeding should consider the timing in relation to the breeding season. We encourage researchers to develop the use of this PCA approach as it could help clarify the complexity of the underlying mechanisms determining foraging activity and we propose that it should be used as a first step of foraging behaviour analysis, before examining a particular relationship.

Communicated by M. E. Hauber.
I. Zimmer, Y. Ropert-Coudert, A. Kato and A. Chiaradia contributed equally to the work.