Intra‐ and inter‐annual variation in gray whale body condition on a foraging ground Public Deposited

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  • Baleen whales store energy gained on foraging grounds to support reproduction and other metabolic needs while fasting for long periods during migration. Whale body condition can be used to monitor foraging success, and thus better understand and anticipate individual‐ and population‐level trends in reproduction and survival. We assessed the body condition of eastern North Pacific gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) on their foraging grounds along the Oregon coast, USA, from June to October of three consecutive years (2016–2018). We used drone photogrammetry and applied the body area index (BAI) to measure and compare whale body condition, which is a continuous, unitless metric similar to the body mass index in humans. A total of 289 drone flights were carried out over 106 photo‐identified whales, which were grouped into demographic units by sex, maturity, and female reproductive status. Calves and pregnant females displayed the highest BAIs, followed by resting females, mature males, and, finally, lactating females, reflecting the significant energetic demands on reproductive females. In all three years, gray whale body condition improved with the progression of feeding seasons, demonstrating the accumulation of body energy reserves on the foraging grounds. Yet, body condition was significantly better in 2016 than in 2017 and 2018 when overall body depletion was observed, indicating a difference in prey availability and/or quality between years. We analyzed local upwelling patterns between 2013 and 2018 as an oceanographic proxy for prey and determined significantly greater upwelling between 2013 and 2015 than low upwelling years between 2016 and 2018. We hypothesize that these upwelling patterns created ecosystem shifts in primary productivity and zooplankton prey of gray whales, causing carry‐over effects between foraging success and body condition in subsequent years. This study demonstrates the value of monitoring whale body condition to better understand temporal variation in foraging success, and potentially detect and describe the causes of anomalous changes in whale population health, such as the 2019 gray whale mortality event.
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  • Soledade Lemos, L., Burnett, J. D., Chandler, T. E., Sumich, J. L., and Torres, L. G.. 2020. Intra‐ and inter‐annual variation in gray whale body condition on a foraging ground. Ecosphere 11( 4):e03094. 10.1002/ecs2.3094
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  • 11
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  • 4
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  • This research was conducted under NOAA/NMFS permits #16011 and #21678 issued to John Calambokidis. Publication of this paper was supported, in part, by the Henry Mastin Graduate Student Fund.
  • This research was funded by the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service Office of Science and Technology Ocean Acoustics Program, Oregon Sea Grant Program Development funds, and the Oregon State University (OSU) Marine Mammal Institute. We are thankful for the support of Brazil's Science Without Borders Program, Brazil's CNPq, the Harvard Laspau Institute, and the Mamie Markham Research Award (Hatfield Marine Science Center/OSU), which provided financial aid and support for LSL.
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