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Functional mechanisms underlying cetacean distribution patterns: hotspots for bottlenose dolphins are linked to foraging


Many studies have shown that the distribution of cetaceans can be closely linked to habitat, but the underlying function of the preferred habitats often remains unclear. Only when behavioural observations are made in relation to habitat types can functional mechanisms behind the habitat use be revealed. Within the range of a bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) population off NE Scotland, dolphins show clear preferences for several discrete areas. If the observed patterns of distribution are related to foraging, we predict that behaviour patterns shown by dolphins would reflect this relationship. In this study we identify behaviours of dolphins at the water surface that were related to feeding events, evaluate whether the patterns of distribution were related to foraging and whether they were related the local submarine habitat characteristics. To investigate whether visible surface evidence of foraging behaviour varied spatially, we analysed data collected from 104 regular boat-based surveys made within the Moray Firth, NE Scotland, between 1990 and 2000. To determine whether underlying bathymetry had any influence on the surface behaviour of dolphins, a land-based observation study was carried out in the populations core region of use. The results of this study show that feeding behaviour by dolphins was significantly higher in areas used intensively by dolphins. Furthermore, there were clear relationships between feeding events and the submarine habitat characteristics; certain forms of feeding occur primarily over steep seabed gradients, and in deeper waters during June and July. These results quantitatively support the hypothesis that the distinctive patterns of distribution shown by these dolphins are related to foraging behaviour or opportunities, and that submarine habitat characteristics may be a significant factor in the foraging efficiency of dolphins. Future work should focus on collecting detailed information on the distribution patterns of prey within the study area to allow direct comparisons between predator and prey distributions.

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This work was supported by Talisman Energy (UK) Ltd., the Cromarty Firth Port Authority, Ross and Cromarty Enterprise and the Caledonian Society of Sheffield. Boat-based surveys were carried out with support from Chevron Texaco, ASAB, MAFF, DETR and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. We thank all those who spent long hours in the field assisting with data collection. We also thank Tim Barton and Stuart Middlemas for comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript. In addition, thanks to Barmac Ltd. for the loan of a theodolite. This research was conducted under the Animal Scientific Licence No. 3469 from Scottish Natural Heritage.

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Correspondence to G. D. Hastie.

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Communicated by J.P. Thorpe, Port Erin

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Hastie, G.D., Wilson, B., Wilson, L.J. et al. Functional mechanisms underlying cetacean distribution patterns: hotspots for bottlenose dolphins are linked to foraging. Marine Biology 144, 397–403 (2004).

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  • Feeding Behaviour
  • Hierarchical Cluster Analysis
  • Steep Gradient
  • Killer Whale
  • Bottlenose Dolphin