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Behaviour and kinematics of continuous ram filtration in bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus)

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Abstract

Balaenid whales perform long breath-hold foraging dives despite a high drag from their ram filtration of zooplankton. To maximize the volume of prey acquired in a dive with limited oxygen supplies, balaenids must either filter feed only occasionally when prey density is particularly high, or they must swim at slow speeds while filtering to reduce drag and oxygen consumption. Using digital tags with three-axis accelerometers, we studied bowhead whales feeding off West Greenland and present here, to our knowledge, the first detailed data on the kinematics and swimming behaviour of a balaenid whale filter feeding at depth. Bowhead whales employ a continuous fluking gait throughout the bottom phase of foraging dives, moving at very slow speeds (less than 1 m s(-1)), allowing them to filter feed continuously at depth. Despite the slow speeds, the large mouth aperture provides a water filtration rate of approximately 3 m(3) s(-1), amounting to some 2000 tonnes of water and prey filtered per dive. We conclude that a food niche of dense, slow-moving zooplankton prey has led balaenids to evolve locomotor and filtering systems adapted to work against a high drag at swimming speeds of less than 0.07 body length s(-1) using a continuous fluking gait very different from that of nekton-feeding, aquatic predators.

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3819-3828
Number of pages10
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Volume276
Issue number1674
DOIs
StatePublished - 7 Nov 2009

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