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Movements and site fidelity of killer whales (Orcinus orca) relative to seasonal and long-term shifts in herring (Clupea harengus) distribution

Abstract

Predators specialising on migratory prey that frequently change migration route face the challenge of finding prey with an unpredictable distribution. Here, we used photo-identification data to investigate whether killer whales observed in herring overwintering and spawning grounds off Iceland follow herring year-round, as previously proposed, and have the ability to adapt to long-term changes in herring distribution. Of 327 identified whales seen more than once, 45% were seen in both grounds, and were thus presumed herring-specialists, likely following herring year-round, while others were only seen on one of the grounds, possibly following herring to unsampled grounds or moving to other locations and exploiting different prey. High seasonal site fidelity to herring grounds, long-term site fidelity to herring spawning grounds, and matches of individual whales between past and recently occupied herring overwintering grounds showed an ability to adapt to long-term changes in prey distribution as well as diversity of movement patterns which are maintained over time, likely as socially-learnt traditions. Such population structuring shows that the movement patterns and foraging ecology of herring-eating killer whales are more complex than previously assumed and must be taken into account in future population assessments. Identifying the factors driving these differences in movements and resource use will be relevant towards our understanding of how prey predictability may drive specialization in this and other top predator species.

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Acknowledgements

We thank all volunteers, colleagues and students who helped with data collection throughout the many field seasons, Annika Firmenich for help processing the photographic data from 2008, and the Vestmannaeyjar Research Centre, particularly Páll M. Jónsson, for logistical support. We are grateful to Láki Tours, particularly Gísli Ólafsson, for allowing research assistants to join whale-watch trips to collect photo-identification data and sharing sightings information in Grundarfjörður and Kolgrafafjörður. Thanks are also due to Viking Tours and RibSafari for sharing sightings information and allowing us to go onboard to collect data in Vestmannaeyjar. We are grateful to Cathy Harlow and Alexa Kershaw from Discover the World, as well Rob Lott, Baldur Thorvaldsson, Róbert Stefánsson, Stefán Á. Ragnarsson, Vassili Papastavrou, Mike Hatcher, Dave Gibson, Kevin Tappenden, Neil Woodward and other members of the public for kindly providing additional photographs, Malene Simon for providing pictures collected in Vestmannaeyjar during earlier efforts as well as Eyþór Þórðarson, Birgir Stefánsson and Tiu Similä. We thank Dr. Andrew Foote for very helpful guidance on the previously collected data in Iceland, as well as providing useful comments on a previous version of this manuscript. The manuscript furthermore benefited from helpful comments by 3 reviewers. Funding was provided by a Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia doctoral scholarship (Grant No. SFRH/BD/30303/2006), an Icelandic Research Fund (i. Rannsóknasjóður) START Postdoctoral Fellowship (Grant No. 120248042), the National Geographic Society Science and Exploration Europe (Grant No. GEFNE65-12) and a Russell Trust Award (University of St. Andrews) to FIPS, the Office of Naval Research (Grant No. N00014-08-10984) to PJOM, a Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia doctoral scholarship (Grant No. SFRH/BD/84714/2012) to SBT and support from the BBC Natural History Unit and funding from a Full Doctorate Fellowship from CNPq/Capes through the Science Without Borders Program, Marie-Curie Intra-European Fellowship and Research and Scholarship Development Fund (University of Cumbria) to VBD. All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed.

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Samarra, F.I.P., Tavares, S.B., Béesau, J. et al. Movements and site fidelity of killer whales (Orcinus orca) relative to seasonal and long-term shifts in herring (Clupea harengus) distribution. Mar Biol 164, 159 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00227-017-3187-9

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