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Potential energy gain by whales outside of the Antarctic: prey preferences and consumption rates of migrating humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae)


The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) makes annual migrations from Antarctic feeding grounds to tropical breeding grounds. The extent to which it feeds during migration is unknown, but thought to be very low. Whether an animal feeds during migration is likely dependent on prey availability and on the ease with which it can capture the available prey. This study used digital tags (DTAGs) and concurrent prey sampling to measure how changes in the depth and type of prey influenced the lunge feeding rates and the amount of energy consumed by migrating humpback whales. Whales targeting krill lunged at significantly higher rates than whales targeting fish; however, the depth of the prey did not influence lunge rate. The observed lunge rates when feeding on krill, to the best of our knowledge, are higher than any previously reported rates of whales feeding. Estimates of the energetic content of the prey ingested revealed that whales may consume between 1.2 and 3.4 times their daily energy requirements per day while feeding on krill during migration, but less when feeding on fish. This suggests that whales may begin to restock energy supplies prior to reaching the Antarctic. Determining how often this high rate of energy intake occurs along the migratory route will assist with understanding the contribution of migratory energy intake to annual energy budgets.

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The authors would like to thank the staff and students of the Cetacean Ecology and Acoustics Laboratory for their assistance. Thanks to Eva Hartvig who assisted with DTAG programming and calibration, and to Simon Blomberg who provided advice on the statistical analyses. Thank you to all of the volunteers in the field who assisted with data collection and Cat Balou whale watching cruises for their support. Thanks also to the Sapphire Coast Marine Discovery Centre for providing their support and laboratory space. Funding for this project was provided by the Australian Marine Mammal Centre at the Australian Antarctic Division. This research was conducted under Scientific Licence number SL100183, and Commonwealth permit numbers 2011-0002 and 2012-0004. Prey was collected under permit number P11/0057-1.0. All applicable International, National, and/or Institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. All procedures performed in studies involving animals were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institution or practice at which the studies were conducted. Ethical approval was granted by the NSW Director General’s Animal Ethics committee (11/2374) and the University of Queensland Animal Welfare Unit (SVS/NSW/198/11/AMMC). This article does not contain any studies with human participants performed by any of the authors.

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Owen, K., Kavanagh, A.S., Warren, J.D. et al. Potential energy gain by whales outside of the Antarctic: prey preferences and consumption rates of migrating humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Polar Biol 40, 277–289 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-016-1951-9

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  • Energy budget
  • Lunge feeding
  • Krill
  • Megaptera novaeangliae
  • Migratory stopover
  • Southern Ocean