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Large-scale habitat segregation of fish-eating and mammal-eating killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the western North Pacific


Top predators strongly impact the structure of ecosystems through the top-down cascading effects on prey species. Killer whales (Orcinus orca), the top predators in marine ecosystems, are increasing their presence in the Arctic following the ice cover loss. The impact of killer whales on marine ecosystems differs dramatically across ecotypes: ‘resident’ R-type killer whales feed mostly on large fish, while ‘transient’ T-type whales feed mostly on marine mammals. We analyze the differences in geographical distribution of killer whale ecotypes in the western North Pacific in order to predict the potential effects of climate change on their range and the consequential impact on Arctic ecosystems. We show that R-type whales prevail in the coastal waters of eastern Kamchatka, Commander and Kuril Islands and in the central Okhotsk Sea, while T-type whales dominate the coastal waters of Chukotka and the coastal Okhotsk Sea. The most prominent difference between these areas is depth: in the regions where R-type whales prevail, deep waters occur close to shore, while the regions dominated by T-type whales are represented by wide shallows covered with ice in winter. We propose several hypotheses to explain this large-scale segregation, including distribution of prey species and ice cover. Habitat preferences suggest that range expansion in the Arctic induced by climate change will likely involve mostly T-type killer whales and consequently increase the predation pressure on marine mammals to a greater extent than on fish stocks. This should be considered in further studies and prediction models highlighting Arctic marine ecosystems change.

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This research was supported by the Pew Marine Fellowship for OF and the Russian Fund for Fundamental Research (Grant 18–04-00462). The expeditions that provided the data for this study were funded by a variety of sources including Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Animal Welfare Institute, Humane Society International, the Litowitz Foundation, Alaska SeaLife Center, Russian Geographical Society, Pew Marine Fellowship, Russian Fund for Fundamental Research. We are grateful to all the people who kindly shared the photographs of their opportunistic encounters with killer whales including Alexandr Bobkov, Elena Golubova, Sergey Gorshkov, Vladimir Dekin, Sergey Fomin, Karina Karenina, Mikhail Korostelev, Maxim Kozlov, Vyacheslav Kozlov, Evgeny Lebedev, Viktor Nikulin, Sergey Nikulin, Nikolay Pavlov, Lika Pokrovskaya, Alexey Timshin, Grigory Tsidulko, Jean-Pierre Sylvestre, Ivan Usatov, Peter Van der Wolf, Vladimir Vertuankin, and David Weller. We also thank all the students and volunteers who participated in our expeditions and helped to collect the data presented here.

We are grateful to Jared Towers and an anonymous reviewer for their thoughtful comments and corrections of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Olga A. Filatova.

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Filatova, O.A., Shpak, O.V., Ivkovich, T.V. et al. Large-scale habitat segregation of fish-eating and mammal-eating killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the western North Pacific. Polar Biol 42, 931–941 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-019-02484-6

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  • Habitat segregation
  • Killer whale
  • Ecotypes
  • Climate change
  • Arctic